The Avalanche Review, VOL. 6, NO. 4, MARCH 15, 1988
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA

Avalanche Dog Alert
by Tracy Voltz

Training a dog for avalanche work is simple when you understand how the dog's mind works in relation to each training exercise. Dogs learn through repetitive training that increases in difficulty and length. The dog is rewarded with praise when the problem is worked correctly. Of course, it would be impossible to learn the techniques needed to train an avalanche dog in one short article. Therefore, outlined below are factors one should consider BEFORE training the avalanche dog.

(1) First of all, it is important to make contact with an organized search dog team--preferably one that specializes in training avalanche dogs. There is no substitute for the knowledge that is gained by observing experienced avalanche dogs and their handlers working through a variety of avalanche problems. Should training problems arise (and they do!) a phone call usually is all that is needed to identify and correct the problem. For those who are living in isolated mountains and who are unable to attend weekly workouts, I suggest you purchase Sandy Bryson's book, SEARCH DOG TRAINING. This book is an indispensable tool for everyone interested in training a dog for search work. (My husband, Ken, and I began training our first dog, Avitar, by reading this book and applying the information to begin training exercises.)

(2) Before starting the search exercise, determine the wind direction. For the beginning purposes you will always work the dog INTO the wind. That means the victim runs and hides UPWIND from the dog. By running and hiding out of site the dog's natural curiosity wonders where the victim has gone. Because the victim just disappears (dogs have no concept of BEHIND), this motivates the dog to look at the place last seen. Through proper training, the dog learns even if it cannot see the victim, by following human scent, eventually will lead the dog to the victim where the reward is then given. The avalanche dog works on the same theory. The dog does not see the victim when beginning, but is trained to smell any human scent percolating from the snow surface.

(3) The type of reward the dog receives is very important. The reward is the single most important factor when training a dog for avalanche work. An avalanche dog will be required to work for long periods in the event of a real avalanche. So the question about which reward system is best for training the avalanche dog arises. Does one train with food or with praise? It has been proven in canine studies that food is not a good motivator when training a dog for two very obvious reasons. First, if the dog's stomach is full of food, it will not respond to training if food is the incentive to work. Second, if the handler happens to be out of food, the dog will not be interested in working either. When dealing with human lives, I would want to be absolutely certain my dog will work for me. So which reward is best for the avalanche dog you ask? Praise is the most successful method of reward for ANY dog in training. Elevated voice tones, GO000D DOG!!! This type of human behavior is very rewarding for the dog. It shows that finding people, ie., human scent immensely pleases the dog's handler. What could be more rewarding for the dog?

(4) Always make sure the dog wins! If the dog is not catching on quickly,take the dog to the victim and reward as though the dog had actually found the victim.

(5) Socialize the dog with other dogs, people, cats, children. In essence,you want to expose the dog to as many different situations as possible. Be sure to begin with the easy things and gradually increase the stressfulness of the situation.

(6) Be sure your dog is on high protein dog food during the working season. Weather conditions, stress, long hours working can quickly deplete your dog's nutritional supply. Most commercial dog food contains a nutritional, balanced meal for the dog. We have used Science Diet for years with wonderful results.

(7) Lastly, provide the working dog adequate time to rest from work. On days off, I recommend the dog take short walks, play stick, swim, and have the opportunity to do nothing. Yes, dogs suffer from job burnout just as their human companions do! As I mentioned earlier, training the dog for avalanche work is rewarding and exciting when the proper training methods are used. The best source for information will be someone that has already trained an avalanche dog. Most handlers are dedicated to saving lives and are more than willing to help others do the same.

The Avalanche Review, VOL. 6, NO. 4, MARCH 15, 1988
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA