Avalanches occur when a large layer of snow flows down a hill or a mountain side, they can be provoked naturally or deliberately.
A massive amount of snow sometimes trap skiers or snowboarders and the speed is so high they are unavoidable. This is why mountain rescue programs are developed for the safety of the skiers.
In France, there are three public rescuing services: the gendarmes (military corps), the policemen and the firemen, trained especially for extreme conditions high in the mountain. The resorts also have their own ski patrollers. They can work with avalanche rescue dogs after a special training course.
You must undergo an exceptional training program with your dog to teach him (only males) to find people trapped under the snow after an avalanche. But being well-equipped with an avalanche transceiver is your best shot if trapped in the snow. The item is strongly recommended for alpinist and free riders.
A handler must be a professional of the mountain and be used to work under extreme conditions and must like animals of course. He/she must keep very healthy and ski very well. Usually a rescue dog is the personal dog of the handler so the dog obeys every word and the owner perfectly understands the attitude of the animal.
What are the breeds of avalanche rescue dogs?
If the Saint Bernard is the first dog coming to our mind when speaking about rescuing and mountain, it is not the best breed as for avalanche, because they are too heavy and lack liveliness.
The German shepherd, Belgian shepherd, Belgian Malinois, Golden Retriever, and Labrador are breeds perfect for avalanche rescuing because they are well-adapted for such conditions and the dogs tend to be quite light and quite strong.
We interviewed Thierry Hannard, ski patrollers and handler at Preyragudes ski resort in the Pyrénées who told us more about the training.
Thierry and Ganache have been an excellent duo for 3 years.
I LOVE SKI: What are the qualities indispensable for a dog handler?
Thierry: First, you have to be a patroller and to know the environment of the mountain. You must live at the mountain to be there very quickly in case of emergency.
Of course you have to like dogs, to know your animal perfectly and understand each reaction and each sign. You have to detect when he spots a victim or to know when to help him and encourage him if it gets long… He is my dog he lives with me and that is absolutely crucial, we have a real complicity.
I LOVE SKI: Can you describe such exceptional training and how long it is valid for?
Thierry: To begin with, the dog must be 14 months old at least but if he is slightly older it is better. The course takes place in France in autumn and winter.
The first stage is to help him entering an igloo so he gets used to the snow and the dark.
Then the handler or an unknown person hides in the snow carrying an item the dog likes, the animal must be used to the smell. Little by little, we cover them with fresh snow and then with harder snow to make it more difficult.
The diploma is given to the two of them.
If the dog or the handler cannot work anymore, the diploma is not valid because we are a team. And every year we must pass the validation exam.
I LOVE SKI: What are the characteristics of an avalanche rescue dog?
Thierry: The dog must obey every word and not have a character too strong. His weight is also an important factor, he has to be quite light to be livelier. He must be in a good shape and pass the exam with the handler every year.
A rescue dog can work until his 10th birthday. Ganache is 4, and she is very healthy today!*
I LOVE SKI: How do you encourage your dog when the rescuing gets long? Does it happen sometimes that he does not want to work?
Thierry: The dog does not feel like he is working but like he is playing. During the training sessions, the fake victim hides with a plastic toy, a gunny tube or with handles the dog can bite, it is a game.
And he wants to please me so as long as he feels supported and he is congratulated, he is happy.
When he does not find anything during a training session he is frustrated afterwards. And the next training he works even harder! But I prefer not to do that, I prefer motivating and congratulating him.
We even hide on purpose if the dog does not find anything so he can find us, to avoid the frustration. As for real avalanches, the victims do not have a toy but he understands quickly what he has to do.
I LOVE SKI: You work at Peyragudes ski resort, but do you sometimes work with other teams?
Thierry: Of course, if there is an avalanche, they can call me and Ganache when I am on call. But the public services are the first ones to know.
I LOVE SKI: Do you have some figures about the rescues?
Thierry: It is quite random and depends on the snowfalls. But what I can tell you is that a team of ski patrollers covers 1 one hectare in 4 hours and a rescue dog 1 hectare in only 20 minutes! It is crucial for the victim. It depends on the thickness of the snow cover and its characteristics. If the snow is fresh, it is easier to find the victims but if the snow is humid and heavy, the smells are harder to detect.
Thierry and Ganache have only intervened once, the victims have been found.
We wish them good luck!