To the Squaw Valley Avalanche Dogs in Lake Tahoe, California, saving people buried under the snow is just a game they love to play. The dogs don’t have to deploy on legitimate rescue missions very often, but if you asked the dogs, they’d probably tell you they find people buried under the snow every week. The fully mission-ready dogs run frequent training search drills (AKA playtime) to keep them excited and prepared for when the community really needs them.
This winter on January 2nd, the team welcomed a new trainee – 11-week-old Belgian Malinois, Ahsoka. Benjamin Stone, Ahsoka’s handler, got her from the Bay Area German Shepherd Rescue. Now, Ahsoka’s settled into her new life with Stone and her older sister, Kaya (Stone’s active avalanche dog). Stone says, “I went and met the dog, we did some tests to test her drive and willingness to work and she was pretty much a perfect fit. She was everything I was looking for.”
Photos by Emily Tidwell
Training an Avalanche Dog
Now that Ahsoka’s found her forever home (and a full-time job), she’s in full training mode learning the avalanche dog game and building strength and agility. Typically, Stone says it takes around 2 years for avalanche rescue puppies and their handlers to become fully-fledged avalanche rescue dog teams, but it can sometimes take less time with more experienced handlers – Stone hopes to have Ahsoka ready by next year.
So what does the avalanche training plan look like?
Part of it includes the standard training you’d teach any puppy – sit, stay, heel, come, etc. – but then they also have to work on skills like tug, dig, and of course, search.
With the searching, Stone says it’s all about introducing it to the dog as a game so they are always excited to do it. It starts off with easy “searches” where the dog can see the person running away and making lots of noise with the toy (a sweater that they’ll use as the toy throughout the training). They’ll have the dog watch as the person hides behind a tree or in a cave and then the dog goes and “finds” them.
Once the dog really has this down, the training slowly progresses to more challenging finds. They’ll start to do searches where the person is partially hidden, then fully hidden, then in a shallow cave under the snow. Eventually, the training will lead to the dog being able to find buried articles of human-scented clothing that have been buried three feet under the snow for 24 hours.
“At this point with Ahsoka, I'm able to pull her out of the crate in the shack, take her outside, tell her to search, and she's doing live blinds without runways now with full walls,” says Stone.
With Stone’s 15 years of ski patrol experience, 13 years of experience working with avalanche dogs, and 10 years handling Kaya, he’s pretty confident Ahsoka will be mission-ready by next year. At that point, Kaya (also a very energetic and spunky Malinois) will pass the baton to Ahsoka as the primary rescue dog and start to enjoy retired life after 11 years of serving her community.
Since Stone now cares for both Kaya and Ahsoka, the two dogs spend a lot of time together. Thankfully, Stone says they get along really well. “Kaya’s been a great older sister,” says Stone. “They coexist, play together and live together – it’s a pretty harmonious relationship between the dogs.”
While Stone says it’s a challenge to keep up the training for both dogs at the same time, he also notes that Kaya has helped teach Ahsoka some skills as well: “In the kitchen the other night we were practicing with the [Rex Specs] goggles. I was putting them on Ahsoka’s face for a few seconds at a time giving her treats, showing her that it's all good. And I remembered Kaya knows how to do this pretty easily, so I called Kaya over, I had Ahsoka sit and just watch us and watch as Kaya put the goggles on like a pro and stood there and looked like a rock star.”
Avalanche Search and Rescue Dog Gear and Safety Precautions
Both dogs and handlers need some special equipment to stay safe on mountain rescue missions. For Stone, that means he always has an avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe and continuously keeps track of conditions and monitoring if the scene is safe.
For the dogs, every dog wears a vest with a handle during working hours because it means the handler can quickly and easily grab or lift the dog if needed. The vest also signals to the dog that they’re going to work because they’ll only wear their work vest during work hours.
The other piece of essential dog safety gear that Stone uses is Rex Specs. Stone doesn’t normally have his dogs search with the goggles on but finds them super useful for the dogs’ eye protection during other times specifically for sun, snow, and helicopter rotor wash.
“It's a great safety feature for say a windy day like today [with 50 mile an hour winds]” Stone says. “The dog was outside just getting pummeled by snow in her eyes, I put the goggles on her and she was able to go out and do her stuff in the wind a lot better.”