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The Advanced Course – Training for Reality

As the CARDA Handler evolves and gains experience after the first validation he or she become eligible for enrollment in the Advanced Course to attain “Senior Dog Handler” status. This is an invaluable opportunity to increase the required skills and to move out of the comfort zone of routine training.

The Advanced Course is offered most years and is slightly shorten in duration but far more intense in logistics and instruction. It is often in a remote area, such as Stewart, BC and involves being in the backcountry over a period of several days. There are two Instructors, one an RCMP dog handler and the other an Alpine Guide.

As any who have been involved in an avalanche know it is rare that it will be a pristine site uncontaminated with the scents of other dogs or rescuers as is the case for the validation test. The main point of the advanced course is to expose the handlers to more complex aspects of avalanche responses. Over the years the course has developed to the point where it is common to see helicopter time, mass responses on ski hills involving a full search and rescue party and the necessity of having to lower the dogs down cliffs to work a debris field. Here the handlers practice working together in large slides where they find out how the dogs interact with each other and how to deal with chaotic situations. In all cases the training is based on reality.

During the course there are two elements that are pushed. They are the team’s ability to travel in avalanche terrain and the dog handling skills. For the former the Alpine Guide is the main Instructor for the latter, the RCMP.

It is possible, especially ice climbing and the winter extreme sports, that the victims may end up in an area that is not accessible by skis. Furthermore the Team might find itself traveling across glaciers and/or having to stay on site overnight. During the course the teams practice dealing with these difficult aspects. The dogs find themselves roped to the handler, lowered in harnesses down excessively step terrain and having to sleep outside with the other dogs instead of their comfortable kennels. It’s important for the handler to know how their dog is going to react to these new stresses and how their searching is effected. Also knowing how one’s dog interacts with the others is crucial. Real-life situations involve using several dogs on the same site often working side by side. It must be insured that the drive to search overcomes the natural dominance and play drives of the dogs. The last place one wants a dogfight is in the back of a helicopter on the way to a real event.

The scenarios challenge the dog-handling skills. Under the direction of the RCMP Instructor the handlers are divided into groups with someone appointed as the leader. The other group will create a scenario that is realistic and challenging. It may involve multiple burials, miss-leading or incomplete information or maybe unhelpful would be rescuers. There can be deliberately scented holes where the dogs will have to distinguish between surface scent and a real find. It could also be all the above. After all no one said it shouldn’t be fun. Potential students should refer to the glossary for a list of suggested “curve balls”. That having been said the Handlers are always aware of the potential seriousness of the training

The recent tragic slide on Boulder Mountain is a prime example of what a CARDA Handler has had to face. The dogs rode together in the close confines of a helicopter and were faced with a massive slide path, an unknown number of victims and a heavily contaminated search area littered with clothing, equipment, snowmobiles and even some food. There were a great many people probing and shoveling and treating the injured all over the scene. Despite these challenges the dogs did their jobs and worked well together. Three of the four CARDA Handlers involved have taken an Advanced Course and were as prepared as humanly possible by the training based on the tragedies of the past. They will in turn relate their experiences and all future handlers will gain from it.

Glossary

Senior Avalanche Rescue Dog Team - Status given on the successful completion of an Advanced Course. It designates the Handler as capable of co-coordinating several dog search teams at once.
Alpine Guide - The advanced Instructor who is responsible for teaching the skills to access difficult dangerous avalanche terrain. ACMG guides are known for their ability to change a light bulb by simply holding it in place and having the world revolve around them.
RCMP – The Instructor who has the dog expertise. Arguably the best dog people on the planet CARDA is privileged to gain from their knowledge. These Instructors are characterized by a generally outgoing nature, the occasional outrageous accent and a skiing style that can be loosely described as strong, efficient comical and reasonably stable. (Rarely as beautiful)
Dominance Drive – The natural instinct of the dog to assert its place in the pack. This can be a problem when in a multi dog search
Play Drive – The natural instinct for a dog to socialize/play with other members of it’s perceived pack. While not aggressive it also can be a problem on mutil dog searches especially when another dog is being praised for a find.
Contamination – Anything on a search site that is producing a distracting smell. This may include food, previous burials and finds, clothing equipment animal/other dog scents and occasionally machinery. Snowmobiles pose an added problem as gasoline can temporarily shut down the olfactory nerves of a dog’s nose
Surface Scent – a contamination on the surface that may be as little as where a rescuer put their skins on. It is vital that a Handler knows the difference in the dog’s interest between buried and surface.
Curve Balls – The tricks applied by Doghandlers to screw up their counter parts on an Advanced training exercise. Suggestions for future handlers
Unreliable witness – gives false info and/or presents language barrier (the author has found out most of the different cultural backgrounds of CARDA members through this method). Sometimes the witnesses will not stay in the immediate vicinity or even start off buried themselves.
Double burial- burying one simulated victim directly beneath another
Deep burial – some burials will be down as far as seven feet. (Note to Eastern Rockies Handlers – don’t forget to leave yourself a way out when digging this one)
Distractions – Loud noises, loose dogs and shoveling snow frantically are all major distractions for the dogs.
Witness stands on top of simulated victim- this is a good one for trust. The dogs will be digging hard at the witness’s feet while the handler is asking the questions.
Wrong Search Area – Very nasty but designed to increase the time the dogs spend searching
Terrain – Setting the scenario up in terrain involving steepness, horrible snow conditions, trees, huge debris and the occasional open stream.
Payback – What every Handler should be aware of when utilizing the curve balls.

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