Avalanche rescue dog-handlers regularly get together for training. This year, the end-of-season refresher session took place on the Val Thorens ski area. We went along to meet them...

Once there, it’s impossible to miss the dedicated training zone: on one side is a vast stretch of ploughed snow where 3 dog-handling teams are already in action while, further along, other dogs are barking loudly while they wait their turn.

But let’s rewind. Before the search and rescue exercise begins, a zone has to be created to mimic an avalanche slide. Igloos are then dug out in various places to house the “victims”.

Just before the exercise starts, volunteers take their places in some of the igloos. The entrances are then sealed using a piste groomer. It’s crucial that this is done by machine to neutralise as far as possible any scent that would be left if it were done using shovels.

“We try to put scenarios in place that come as close as possible to a real avalanche” explains trainer Guy Anciaux.

Once everyone is in place, the exercise begins

The moment they arrive on site, the teams need to assess and analyse the situation so that the entire avalanche area can be searched as quickly and efficiently as possible.

After that, they need to bring in the dogs to start the search. Guy told us “The handlers are used to reading their dogs and the dogs are used to working with handlers they know, this harmonious bond is what gets real results.”

When a dog locates someone buried in the snow, their handler alerts the team by radio to request help from the other ski patrollers to dig the victim out.

Immediately afterwards, the handler plays with their dog as a reward. If the dogs see the search as a game, they concentrate on the goal and quickly refocus on picking up the next trail.

The exercise ends when the entire zone has been searched and all victims have been located.

Puppy training

We were also lucky enough to see young puppies being trained for the first time.

Once they’ve been weaned, puppies generally start basic pre-training until they’re about 18 months old. After that age, handlers and dogs take part in a finishing course that lasts two weeks and leads to a qualification at the end.

Now that we have DVA avalanche kits and other technological developments, why do we still work with dogs?

“Dog-handling teams have been in use for something like half a century now. When all the detection tools we’re now familiar with, the DVA probe, Recco and other highly sophisticated bits of kit came in, we thought that something would eventually replace dogs as a scent-detector for finding victims buried under the snow… But it hasn’t, they remain irreplaceable, something proved every year by the people they rescue from avalanches” Guy Anciaux tells us, before concluding with these words:

“We should say thank you to these dogs, who are fantastic, because whatever the weather or difficulties we come across, they always answer the call. I think that’s the real reward for those of us here.

We should also say that the best avalanche is the one you don’t get caught in because chances of survival are still not great”.

As far as we’re concerned, Ingrid and I were impressed by their work and would like to join him in inviting you to be vigilant when you’re out on the slopes and above all, to thank the dogs and their handlers that save lives every year.

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