News & Articles
Being a CARDA Instructor
Being a CARDA (Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association) Instructor is a both a privilege and hard work. One of the most common questions that we field is "What does it take to be a CARDA dog handler?". The answer is not a short one. An Avalanche Dog Team consist of two parts which are the human handler and the dog. To be a successful and viable team both parts need to be evaluated. The process should really start when an interested party contacts CARDA and talks to an experienced handler. CARDA is looking for people in the Avalanche Field that are strong skiers and willing to take the time and commitment to train a dog. The candidate can be expect to be asked two questions, "What are you going to be doing for the next five to ten years" and "Why do you want to do this?".
The process of training and then handling an avalanche dog is a long one. Most dogs are trained starting at six months to a year old and are retired somewhere around eight to ten years old. Training is an on going process that never ends throughout the career. A potential handler has to understand the level of the commitment. Sometimes the person has yet to get a dog and seeks advice on breed and sometimes they have a dog but are uncertain as to its suitability. If this is the case the dog has to be between 6 months to two years old. Any younger and the dog hasn't matured enough, any older and there is too little working life left after the two full years of training.
To spend the time and effort to train a dog is one thing. To be in a position to actually perform a search is another. There simply is no point to all the work when the finished team is not in a position to respond. The wrong answer to the second question is "Because my dog likes it." We do not put ourselves in positions where our dog is the difference between life and death because we needed something for our pet to do. Generally CARDA prefers that the potential handlers are somehow connected to the ski/avalanche industry. Ski patrollers are common as are those in forecasting positions with other institutions. The handler has to be in a good position to respond in a timely manner to an avalanche. It needs to be said that the potential handler must at least have the skill to ski down any slope in any snow condition. Fitness and back-country milage are essential. The other thing the handlers are judged on is their ability to give the dogs what as needed to reward them. When it comes to rewarding the dog that has just found a simulated victim (quarry) there is a saying "If you're not acting like an idiot you're doing it wrong." The handler needs to put as much excitement into the dogs as possible. Both their own and, as we quarry for each other, any dog they hide for. If the CARDA member judges that there is a potential candidate then the next step is the CARDA Spring Course held every May in Kamloops.
This year twelve new handlers attended the course and were evaluated. The candidates were put through a five step process over two days. The tests were adopted from the RCMP when it became apparent during our winter courses that there were two many dogs coming in that were inappropriate for the work. It was obvious that in many cases it was a waste of time and effort for both the handlers and the organization to attempt to train dogs that were unsuitable. The Spring course has proven to be very successful. Very few of the those candidates that pass the evaluation prove to be unfit later on in the process.
Basically the tests are designed to measure the amount of hunting and prey drive in the dogs. Searching, to the wolf part of a dog's mind, is hunting. Pinpointing the victim is the prey drive. All dogs have a level of these drives and it is a question of how much that we are testing for. Over the centuries dogs have been bred for many things beside hunting. There are breeds for everything from protection to lapdogs. The ones that tend to do the best in the search and rescue game are the hunting breeds. Labradors and Golden Retrievers are common in CARDA as is the excellent general purpose German Shepherd. There are also the herders (herding is a form of hunting) and a mix of cross breeds. The crosses usually have a hunting breed somewhere in the background. It surprises many that there are two distinct breeds missing. The St. Bernard and the Husky. The St. Bernard's have the distinction of being the first avalanche dogs in the 1700s (Barry did exist) but were actually bred to protect herds of sheep and cattle in the alps. Furthermore anyone who has tried to stuff a dog in helicopter can tell you a Bernard would present logistical difficulties. The Husky is bred to pull sleds. They are notorious for being disinterested in searches. Whatever the breed it is also determined if the dog is aggressive to other dogs or humans. These dogs are deemed dangerous and are not acceptable regardless of how well they search. They must also be of appropriate size and able to handle cold conditions. Obedience is one of the training goals as high drive dogs tend to be difficult house pets. While the drive should not be over ridden by training the dogs must have the temperament to be controllable in high stress situations.
The testing format is relatively simple. The dog is restrained by the evaluator and the handler/owner runs off waving the dogs favorite rag toy over their head and acting as animated as possible. As soon as the handler drops out of sight the dog is released. The evaluator looks for the dog being super excited while the run-away is in process, how hard the dog looks for the handler and finally how the dog responds on finding said person. Ironically it is the dog's instinct to grab a piece of the prey and tear it off that we use as a reward for finding a person. Simply put we are looking for a wild game of tug of war. Long "rag" toys are used instead of clothing or arms. Over the next few steps a different person is introduced to do the run-away and the time between the run-away and releasing the dog is increased as is the difficulty of the search.
There are a few terms which describe a dog's performance.
This is a phrase meaning that the dog has no interest in searching.
This is a dog that is on the border line. Three quarters of the time it will do the job but the other quarter it will lose focus. The evaluator must determine if the last quarter is something the dog will mature into or, in rare cases, can be trained into the dog.
A solid dog is one that performs all the tests well and with enthusiasm. They are fast and workmanlike in their approach
The most desirable dog. Extremely fast and focussed they also tend to be difficult to hold back during the run aways and are awesome at the tug of war.
In the end the evaluators are asking themselves "Do I want this dog searching for me?" This is what it all comes down to.
This year we had eleven of the candidates get passes. Of those eleven it remains to be seen how many will enroll in the winter Course. There are life changes, health issues to the dog and handler and sometimes the candidate admits that going through with the program will be too much commitment with too little reward.
Successful candidates are given the opportunity to enroll in the CARDA winter course as a "Team In Training". This is the next big step into the exciting world of Avalanche Dog handling.