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Avalanche dogs come to the rescue

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If you ever find yourself the victim of an avalanche, you had better hope the leader of your search and rescue team is a dog.  Canines' keen senses allow them to smell things that humans cannot see.  So if someone is buried underneath an avalanche, it's likely the one who will dictate whether it's a life or death situation is, indeed, man's best friend. 

Skiers, mountain climbers and high-altitude hikers alike don’t think it’s going to happen to them. Yet, the reality is that given the right conditions, an avalanche can occur whenever and wherever there is substantial snow lying on a steep angle.

The years of 2007 and 2008 were a particularly deadly one for avalanche fatalities in the United States, with more than 31 deaths counted between November 2007 and mid-February 2008, when the last tally was reported by avalanche.org, an avalanche-tracking Web site.

Whether you’re buried beneath a deadly pile of heavy snow on a ski slope or lost in a blizzard miles from civilization, don’t expect a trusty Saint Bernard to show up in the nick of time with a flask of whiskey around its neck. In reality, your chances are better that it will be an avalanche dog like Tasha.

Dogged determination

A 12-year-old female Labrador named Tasha is a certified avalanche search-and-rescue(SAR) dog owned by Susan Purvis, president of Crested Butte Outdoors, a wilderness training company in Whitefish, Mont.

One of Tasha’s most dangerous assignments was when she and Purvis were dispatched to the snowy and avalanche-prone high country of Ouray, Colo. in June 2005. Their mission? To find what 37 days of dangerous helicopter searches couldn’t: the fourth body of a family of four, all of whom had succumbed to a plane crash weeks earlier (three of the bodies had already been recovered).

“Dogs can smell what we can’t see,” Purvis said, who added that Labs like Tasha are suitable for snowy environments because snow doesn’t stick to their oily coats. “You can have 100 people searching an avalanche scene, but only a trained dog can distinguish the victim’s scent on top of the snow and underneath.”

Within 30 minutes of arriving on the frigid, windy and snowy scene, Tasha located the missing plane crash victim.

“We risked our lives in a dangerous avalanche situation to find a deceased person, but we were able to help bring closure to the relatives. And this was all within a 20-hour period in which Tasha had earlier helped a dive team locate a drowning victim,” Purvis said.

Cold, hard facts

Unfortunately, most missions that involve avalanche dogs are recoveries of the deceased. That’s because the chances of surviving an avalanche burial after two hours is only 3 percent, according to a Swiss study on avalanche mortality published in 1992. You have a 30 percent chance of surviving if rescued at the 35-minute mark – a number that increases to 90 percent if you’re recovered within the first 15 minutes, which is extremely rare.

In fact, regardless of the type of SAR mission or setting, live human beings are only found approximately 3 percent of the time on the average, said Harry Oakes, owner of Longview, Wash.-based International K-9 Search and Rescue Services, a training and SAR-for-hire company.

“We’ve seen a consistent annual rise in search-and-rescue missions over the last several years,” Oakes said. “I attribute this to an increase in population and technological advancements. All over the world, more people are heading out into the wilderness and enjoying the great outdoors. But many have a false sense of security thinking they can rely on their cell phones to get them out of danger.”

In 2007, Oakes’ SAR team had a record year, being involved in 50 missing person searches.

“We located 10 of the 50 during the searches. And another 35 were found because of the efforts of our search dogs and handlers in tracking to a specific area and placing other fresh teams in that area,” said Oakes, who, with his dogs, has been directly involved in locating and rescuing more than 160 live human beings since 1986.

Sobering numbers

Purvis and her canine companion, meanwhile, have been called on more than 70 missions over the years, helping to find lost hikers, skiers and drowning victims. In fact, when it comes to successful recoveries of avalanche victims, Tasha is 4 for 4. Yet, the team has had only one successful rescue of a live person, a sobering number that is consistent with statistics provided by other SAR teams.

Despite these numbers, “family members and law enforcement officials often don’t understand how important trained dogs can be to a search- and-rescue mission,” Purvis said. “These dogs can save valuable time, money and resources and reduce risks.”

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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