All About Avalanche Dogs

Many of us have laughed at the cartoons that depict dogs rescuing people trapped in snowdrifts, giving them a shot of liquor from a small wooden barrel around their neck. But even though such scenes can be humorous, the aid that avalanche rescue dogs provide to the human race is no laughing matter. Each year, scores of people are rescued from hypothermia as a result of the efforts of such canines.

Perhaps the best known of all avalanche rescue dogs is the St. Bernard. This breed gets its name from the St. Bernard pass between Italy and Switzerland that goes through the Alps. Monks who lived in the pass have kept the breed ever since the mid-seventeenth century, but it was not until the eighteenth century that the St. Bernard was used to search and rescue travelers who were stranded in the often treacherous, snowy path. The coat of the St. Bernard and its developed tracking abilities makes it an excellent choice for such work. Today, helicopters are the main method employed to find lost people in the St. Bernard pass, but in other parts of the world, St. Bernards and other breeds are still used to rescue people from avalanches.

Avalanche rescue dogs are just one group of dogs used for search and rescue. Nearly any large breed can be used as a search-and-rescue dog; the main qualifications are the dog’s attitude and the owner/trainer’s skill and patience for training a dog to perform its search and rescue job. Today, many organizations and government entities make use of search-dog teams not only to rescue people from avalanches but also from earthquake debris, mudslides, and other natural and man-made disasters.

Studies down in the Swiss Alps show a 90 percent recovery rate of a person found within the first 15 minutes of being buried by an Avalanche. After 30 minutes the chance for survival falls to below 30 percent. This is why speed is such an important factor with any search dog. The dogs can usually only pick up human scent 2-4 meters below the snow pact. Once the dog catches this scent he will bury his head under the snow to try to locate the victim. If the smell gets stronger he will begin to dig down trying to reach the source. If the smell is weaker as he digs, he will quickly move along trying to pin point a stronger scent.

Even though avalanche dogs and other search-and-rescue dog teams are used to save people who are trapped in dangerous situations, avoiding these situations is still the best way to preserve your life and the lives of your friends and family, since it is possible to be trapped for hours before a dog team is able to find you. Any one who is hiking through the mountains or skiing down the slopes during the winter needs to be on the lookout for places where an avalanche is especially likely. Carrying special gear on a hike will also drastically increase the odds of survival in the event that you or a companion are trapped under a snowdrift. Small, portable shovels, avalanche beacons, and other equipment are commonly found in the packs of hikers and are some of the most effective tools for rescuing people before it is too late.

Nevertheless, avalanche dogs remain important partners with human beings in the preservation of life. The many search-and-rescue dog organizations testify that dogs truly remain man’s best friend.