Today they are inseparable from mountain rescue and even from the Alpine imagination: the avalanche dog and its master form a united duo necessary for the rescue of man in a mountain environment.

Admired by adults, adored by children, the avalanche dog, generally represented by the St Bernard breed, has been one of the symbols of the mountains since the 18th century. In the form of stuffed animals, on postcards or even in the flesh during folk festivals, the “barrel dog” has become famous well beyond the Alps.

A little bit of history

The legend of rescue dogs came to life in 1709 when the monks of the Hospice du Grand St Bernard decided to use the scent and resistance of their animals to come to the aid of missing travelers. It was not until 1938, and the Schilthorn disaster, that we truly spoke of an avalanche dog. 18 young people are swept away by a sinkhole very close to this charming Swiss village. 17 are found by Men, the 18th will be found by a mongrel dog accompanying the rescuers. Two years later, the first “avalanche search dog” training program was launched in Switzerland. Since 1940, the mission has become significantly professionalized.

However, one aspect has not changed: the close relationship between the dog and its master. He must constantly listen to his animal and maintain very good relations with him. A lot of time must be devoted to it on a daily basis throughout the year. The Dog Handler is above all a mountain man who is passionate about his dog!

Avalanche dog

Contrary to what people may think, avalanche dog handler is not a profession in the strict sense as it is not possible to make a living from it. This is a specialization that mountain professionals can complete. Thus, dog handlers are generally trackers-rescuers, ski lift employees, firefighters, gendarmes or even CRS. It is therefore an additional investment dedicated to serving others.

For this, the future Master and his dog must undergo one year of training. The team will only be operational after obtaining the precious diploma awarded by the National Association for the Study of Snow and Avalanches. In order to validate this diploma, the dog handler must master concepts such as ski descent in all types of snow, knowledge of the mountain environment or even climbing on mountaineering skis. The dog's abilities are developed over the course of the course. time, choosing a puppy is of course a crucial moment.

The best known breeds are: Border Collie, Malinois, Labrador, German Shepherd and Golden Retriever. Once selected, the puppy begins its education around 3 months on three bases: obedience, sociability and play. The latter will be essential since the principle of avalanche research is based on the triptych: “I am looking, I find, I play.”

Generally speaking, the dog can detect a person buried under snow up to 4 meters deep. However, in Austria and the USA it has happened that dogs have spotted victims buried 12 meters deep. Once the training is completed, the team is declared capable of avalanche research. Numerous training sessions are scheduled during the winter but also summer season in order to maintain good reflexes and practices in the dog, but also the handler.

Avalanche dog

In the field, the dog handler and his animal intervene, as a priority, in the ski area of ​​their territory and this at the request of the manager of the slopes service. The duo may be required to intervene outside the ski area, in the “mountain zone”, only at the request of the Prefecture and as part of reinforcements for the emergency services in Haute-Montagne. The duration of activity of an avalanche dog generally ends, depending on its state of fatigue, around 10 years.

He is, of course, not abandoned and quietly ends his life in the home where he has lived all the time. The place of “man's best friend” in people's hearts but also in the mountain imagination is therefore entirely justified. If his master knows how to properly watch over him, the dog will be able to reciprocate by saving the lives of many lost or careless people. However, it is always more pleasant to come across an avalanche dog in the streets of the resort rather than during an avalanche. so…be careful!

For more information : National Association for the Study of Snow and Avalanches


Was this content useful to you?