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The First Year

In the process of training an Avalanche Search Dog there is no stage as crucial or unique as the first year. Those that passed the Spring evaluation are joined by experienced handlers who are starting new dogs to form the “Beginner Group”. The goal of this group is to imprint the young dogs the use of their hunting drive to find live human scent and associating it with a positive instinctual reward. This is done at the CARDA Winter Course held this year in Whistler BC. The Course took a week and also included the Advanced and Intermediate groups totaling twenty-seven dog teams. Although the other groups are undergoing intense training and are under somewhat more stress as they are being tested, no group works harder than the Beginner Group.
These handlers are subjected to long intense days. On top of the dog handling they have to attend lectures as well as the general meetings. They perform multiple searches throughout the week both for their own dogs and for the others. They learn the fundamentals of obedience and how to travel in the winter environment with their dogs

The imprinting process is virtually identical to the testing process of the Spring but the goal is to train the dog to use rather than to test its hunting drive. Also the concept of finding someone under snow is introduced. The Beginners spend most of the first morning hollowing out piles of snow (quinzees) to make a snow cave large enough for two people. These are used for most of the week for people (quarries) to hide in. The dogs progress from finding their owners to strangers and eventually if all goes well, to finding packs. Difficulty is increased by increasing the time between the quarry running away and releasing the dog until the dog is brought into the search without ever seeing the quarry. The walls on the entrance to the quinzees are key in that this is what teaches the dogs to indicate a finding a human by digging. The walls are increased in thickness as the week continues teaching the dogs to pursue. As always the reward the dogs get is enthusiastic and very re-enforcing. As the dogs learn they are given multiple quarries to find increasing the time they have to work. Being intelligent the dogs figure out that the humans must be in one of these piles of snow so another change is the utilization of shallow grave burials that do not use the quinzees.

The handlers themselves are learning about their dogs. They are taught to watch for the body language as the dogs find the scent cones. To know the difference between when their dog is interested and when they are indicating. Handlers must learn what the best way to reward their dog is and how to communicate that to the quarries. They learn how the way they move affects how their dog moves. Every handler learns from watching the other teams as well. The group is encouraged to give each other feedback and to take it with professionalism. All this is backed up by the afternoon lectures. These are presented by the Instructors and cover training issues such as scent characteristics and guide the students through different methods. Later on in the week the handlers are shown what is expected of them by the following year when they are up for validation. Demonstrations and exercises in obedience and the testing process are given. On the last day they are given the opportunity to load their dogs onto lifting harnesses, skidoos and are given a short flight on a helicopter. If all goes well in the week the teams are given the designation “Team in Training” and are given the green light to continue in the program.

The last day also provides a meeting between the Instructors and the handlers to critique the course and come up with as much as a plan as possible for bringing the team up to a validation standard by the next year.

As an Instructor the most fulfilling thing I witness with this group is the development of two bonds. One is between the individual handler and their dog and the other is within the new handlers.

As the dog spends the week with the handler performing exercise after exercise and being constantly rewarded the bond that already exists is strengthened immeasurably. Trust, a key factor in the success of the team, is developed both ways. The dog realizes that nothing makes the Alpha (handler) as happy as when the quarry is found and that this act is the means of getting the ultimate reward from the Alpha. The handler, on the other hand, sees the dog consistently locate the quarry despite the increasing difficulty. They see the pure joy of their dogs doing what they born to do and how well they do it. It is a goal of the Instructors that every handler becomes convinced that they personally have the best dog.

This being said it is also a basic concept that every handler in the beginner group holds themselves responsible for the success of every team in their group. They provide the best possible quarrying for each other’s dogs. They give positive feedback and help each other through the glitches. In short, they are completely supportive of each other. The bond created from this dynamic last throughout their careers. Personally some of my closest friends are those that were part of my first puppy group over fifteen years ago. From the first year on this bonds will see each other over the ups and downs of validations, injuries or losses of the dogs and of actual responses. Many of the handlers keep in touch and try to train together whenever and wherever possible. They help each other prepare for next years validation the topic of the next article.

Glossary

Quarry

A person who is hiding for the dog. They must be outgoing and have the ability to get any dog ten out of ten in the excitement scale. Quarries are either members of the group or volunteers. This is an excellent way for discovering if one wants to be in the program. Volunteer quarries are treated like gold and never have to buy their own refreshments

Quinzees

Large piles of snow hollowed out to provide a safe and relatively comfortable place for a quarry to hide. A group will typically use six to eight of these.

Shallow Graves

A simple trench where the quarry hides covered with a thin layer of snow. This gets the dog away from the quinzees and opens up the entire area for potential hides. They are not as comfortable as they sound.

CARDA Winter Course

Held every year in January either in Golden, Fernie or Whistler. Provides the format for training new teams, validations and fulfilling the requirement that all validated CARDA teams take a course every two years.

Beginner Group

Also known as the Puppy group this is the first year handlers plus experienced handlers who are bringing on a new dog.

Intermediate Group

Mostly composed of second year handlers who are preparing for validation. They get an attempt based on the Instructors evaluation of their readiness.

Advanced Group

Teams fulfilling the obligation of a course every two years. They are exposed to more difficult search scenarios and are also re-validated sometime during the week.

Validation

The certification of an Avalanche Dog Team. It consists of a Search problem, an obedience test and a backcountry ski test. (n.b. the ski test is for the handlers ability and competence in avalanche terrain. This year CARDA has moved this test from the second year to the day before the first year course)

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