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In the previous instalments the focus has been on the initial training and validation of the CARDA Search Dog Team. The students have spent the first two years committed to attaining this goal and making every effort in achieving it. The process is so intense that it is easy to forget the actual purpose which is to be an active and experienced team. This entails establishing and maintaining relationships with the RCMP and local Search and Rescue Groups, ongoing training and constantly preparing for the real life and death call. In short the handler must take the necessary steps to be in a position to respond in a timely manner to an avalanche and do so throughout the working life of the dog.
To begin with there is no sense in validating a team when there is little or no possibility of being called on for a rescue. By now the handler should be working/volunteering in the winter industry where there is a mandate for search and rescue. There is still a wide variety of support for the handlers ranging from full food and veterinary financial support to a begrudging “you’re lucky the dog is even allowed here”. Most CARDA handlers are professional ski patrols although there is also a strong representation of the Guiding and Transport industries. In every case the support of the agency involved is crucial. There are some places, such as Whistler/Blackcomb, where the importance of a having avalanche rescue dog teams has long been established. Conversely there are still situations where a new handler may find themselves playing the role of pioneer. They have to prove that the dog, with all the perceived problems, is an asset that does not take away from the normal duties of the handler. This can be a frustrating and lonely spot. As passionate dog people we tend to forget that the rest of the world doesn’t see situations as we do. The non dog world is concerned with allergies, hygiene and the fear of someone getting bit. As Handlers we are obligated to alleviate or at least mitigate theses fears as much as possible. The Handler can find themselves in the role of trail blazer where every interaction involving the dog reflects on the future of the program. It is a difficult and delicate position that gives the Handlers the opportunity to show professionalism on a daily basis.
CARDA has been privileged and in no small measure aided by the support of the RCMP and Parks Canada. The selection and training of CARDA dogs is based on RCMP protocols and every CARDA course has RCMP Doghandlers teaching alongside CARDA Instructors. It is, however, still a responsibility of CARDA Handlers to make themselves known to their local RCMP Handler and conduct themselves professionally. In other words, trust must be gained. As all Search and Rescue operations fall under the mandate of the RCMP this is a crucial relationship for a Handler to establish and maintain.
In order to continue being an active resource the handler must meet the requirements of both the affiliated rescue agency, (in BC PEP) and of CARDA. Validation of the dog is not a one shot affair. CARDA teams are required to re-validate every year and participate in a Course every second year. The nature of the beast is that the dog needs consistent training that motivates and challenges it. Handlers are encouraged to create scenarios that are more tailored to the handlers’ situation. For example if the handler works on a ski hill it would be important to work the dog while other rescuers are performing probe and beacon searches.
On the second year the handlers now have the option of either being in the Advanced Group at the regular CARDA course or participating in the smaller Advanced Course. In both cases the team is given a higher level of difficulty and expected to take on more of a leadership role. A successful conclusion means that the Team achieves Senior Avalanche Recue Dog Team status. The handler is now capable of leading large scale scenarios with multiple dog teams. (The ins and outs of an Advanced Group/Course are a topic for another instalment.)
As a long time CARDA member and Handler I have seen many teams come and go. There is a high dropout rate due to life changes, health of the dog and sadly, lack of support. Of those who have stuck with it almost every case I have witnessed a level of commitment and dedication that I find fulfilling and inspiring. A perk to being an Instructor is that every two years I get to re-connect with former students and find out what they’ve been doing for training and learn a few new things based on their experiences. As the years go by I have witnessed the path many a young handler has taken. Some have reached the top levels of their jobs and attained the CAA Level 2 and completed the ACMG Guide courses. Others have become helicopter pilots and RCMP Officers. It’s never been a surprise since I saw the motivation and drive they put into their dogs. Along the way many have answered the call.
The reality is that the Handlers of CARDA will at sometime respond to a real call. All the training in the world cannot duplicate the tension and urgency that goes into it. As most know in the avalanche field if there is no self-rescue there is little chance of a live recovery. CARDA Handlers hope and train for the best result but the sad fact remains that there is a strong possibility that it will be a body recovery. Personally speaking, I never really thought what the word “dichotomy’ meant until my dog went above and beyond to help locate a young child. We were too late and the family’s grief will always stay with me. Many of my colleagues in CARDA have been through similar and even more tragic circumstances, some several times. It is the hope that others may live because of the training and effort we put into our dogs that makes the everlasting training process worth every minute.
A smaller yearly course that covers the CARDA mandate of attending a course every two years. Handlers work their dogs in more complex scenarios and spend time in the back-country furthering their skills
The most experienced attendees of the General Course. Perform more complex searches and work in more difficult terrain. Successful validation for both Advanced Group/Course members are given “Senior Avalanche Rescue Dog Team” status.
PEP Provincial Emergency Program. All CARDA residents of BC must be a member of good standing in order to be on the resource list.
People who are in a business where the customer is always wrong.
CAA Level 2
The top level course/certificate for the avalanche industry. Roughly similar to a degree in nuclear physics (On taking this course in 1995 the author opted for a career in firefighting)
Guide Similar to getting a Nobel Peace Prize in Nuclear Physics
The time from the first validation to retirement which is usually around 8 – 10 years old. The average working life for the larger breeds is 6-8 years
An expression meaning that the training of an Avalanche Search Dog never ends throughout the working life of the dog.
Handlers who have been with CARDA for more than one dog. Some CARDA Handlers are on their fourth dog with the previous having a full working life.
Usually when physically unable to work in a timely manner in the environment. Now qualifies for the “the Life of Riley” (Three meals a day, gets to sleep inside and has the right to put the new pup in it’s place)
Usually a life change such as family or a career outside the avalanche industry. No CARDA Handler has admitted to physical demands being the reason although skiing styles have noticeably changed in a few.