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High altitude and avalanche rescue canines are some of the most highly trained and capable dogs in the world. At ski resorts and in mountainous regions all over the world, K9 avalanche rescue dogs are a critical part of improving the survival rates of the inevitable buried hiker or skier. Because most victims survive if they are rescued within half an hour, the extremely sensitive scent receptors of a fully trained and certified avalanche rescue dog may be the only thing standing between a speedy rescue and tragedy.
Rescue dogs trained to work in high altitudes or in avalanche-prone environments must be hardy enough for the job. They must be physically able to continue working quickly even in the most deplorable weather conditions. For this reason breeds like the Belgian Shepard, Labrador Retriever, Australian Shepard and the Border Collie are most often used.
Training begins at 3 months of age. Puppies are encouraged to find their owners or handlers who are increasingly buried in snow. By 9 months of age the dogs should eagerly engage a search pattern and cover approximately 20 times the ground that dozens of human searchers could cover in the same amount of time. Nose to the ground, K9 avalanche dogs seek out any human scent that rises from the snow.
When a scent is found, trained dogs must bury their heads in the snow to determine how close the source is. If the scent is stronger under the snow the dog will begin to dig rapidly and efficiently. If the smell is weak – as in superficial scent left by previous searchers – the canine must re-engage its search pattern.
High altitude and avalanche rescue dogs that are also trained to seek out and recognize trauma or cadavers are often best for this highly specialized job because they will be able to detect the smell of human flesh, blood and injuries where even the most sophisticated probes and infrared cameras cannot. In the case of multiple burials spread over a wide area, these dogs have been known to pinpoint and help uncover people alive that were buried for up to two days, and sometimes at depths of 10 to 12 meters.
Most avalanche rescue dogs are trained for 2 years before being dispatched for full or part time work. However, many will only be involved in actual rescues a few times in their career. This is because most ski resorts and warden services employ avalanche teams that use explosives and careful trigger-point skiing techniques to purposefully cause avalanches. Trained avalanche dogs will accompany these teams in order to provide immediate support in case of emergency during an avalanche trigger or exploratory mission.
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