Aspiring Avalanche Dogs Aim to Increase Snow Safety

The day before we spoke, Matt Gunn woke up to a call putting him on notice for a potential rescue situation around an accident on Mount Cook on New Zealand’s south island. Two climbers were missing, and the authorities were considering bringing in a dog team to assist. As always in these situations, Aspiring Avalanche Dogs was the organization to call, and Matt and his current rescue dog Rocket sprang into action to prepare for the mission in case they got the go-ahead.

Matt was raised in the Mount Cook area of New Zealand, a rugged alpine region that has produced some of the world’s best climbers and mountaineers. As part of this community, Matt was all too familiar with losing friends and neighbors to accidents, and as his passion for outdoor sports and respect for the mountains continued to grow, so did a desire to help bring people home safely from their adventures.

In 1991 at age 19, Matt started working as a liftie at Ohau and thus began his long career in the ski industry that continues today. After a major avalanche buried several people and killed one of his friends at Ohau, Matt knew something needed to change. The fire was lit to find a way to get in involved in mountain safety, even if he didn’t know yet what would fan the flames.

That spark came a few years later in the form of a whip-smart border collie named Wizard who Matt watched for a friend one winter. While Matt was excited to have a pup around for the season, little did he know Wizard would become the inspiration for his life’s work. During a trek from Queenstown to Wanaka the pair got snowed in, and when boredom set in, Matt decided to pass the time by training Wizard to find food. Watching how quickly Wizard could work to locate a target and how dedicated to and excited he was for the task at hand gave Matt the Oprah-style “ah-ha” moment he needed. Dogs were the future of mountain safety, and he was ready to make it a present-day reality.

When his friend bred Wizard, Matt got pick of the litter and brought home Blizzid who became his first rescue dog and the founding pup of Matt’s nonprofit Aspiring Avalanche Dogs. Matt and Blizzid were the first canine avalanche team at Treble Cone resort in 2000, where Matt was a ski patroller, and the pair went on 10 rescues together over Blizzid’s nine year career before she retired.

Back then, Matt didn’t know yet what he was doing when it came to training. There was no real internet resource to learn from yet, and he was pioneering the first program in the area. Instead, he worked on instinct and let Blizzid take the lead with the rest. They started with a rope toy and used the game of fetch to teach her the basics, and from there they learned and expanded together, becoming a veritable force in the snow, an incredible asset to the community, and a respected expert in the field.

Aspiring Avalanche Dogs has grown significantly since those early days, both in size and in scope. Now with four active dog/handler teams -- who are all members of LANDSAR -- and a handful of alumni pups, the crew is the go-to rescue option for police and patrollers in the Southern Lakes Region. And beyond active rescue situations, they’re making a difference in the classroom as well, where they are combatting future accidents by educating kids about mountain safety.

Eighteen years in, Matt knows that dogs are the key to helping bring people home safely from the mountains. While Aspiring Avalanche Dogs hasn’t made a rescue to date, their service is invaluable, as the dog/handler teams are able to survey a slide area alongside authorities and clear it with certainty that there are no people under the snow. The Aspiring Avalanche Dogs teams will usually work in pairs, dropping into a slide site and taking turns surveying areas and then swapping to ensure that multiple dogs and handlers are inspecting every part of the accident. This system brings a confidence to a search that wasn’t previously attainable. The dogs are also a vital piece of the organization’s education program, bringing the kids in on the lesson and engaging them in the demonstrations.

And while Matt and Rocket didn’t end up deploying to the latest Mount Cook accident, Matt was quick to tell me that the feeling he gets with even the warning notice is confirmation that he’s found his calling: “I just get this huge adrenaline rush and sense of purpose. I like to help people...and that’s my motivation...working alongside this team to bring people home to their families is so special. And these dogs teach us and show us how to be better humans. There’s nothing better than that.”

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