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Training the Avalanche Dog : The Older Dog

In the past installments all the aspects in the training of an avalanche dog team were examined from the selection process to the advanced courses. Every step is critical to the development of an efficient and timely resource for the rescue of avalanche victims. First time CARDA handlers mature greatly through this time although not as fast as their partner. All too soon the handler must adjust to the fact that their dog has become older and is starting to come to the end of their working life.

The working life of a dog is the time from certification to retirement. This is dependent on many factors such as injuries, life changes for the handler and the breed. The larger dogs, such as the German Shepherd and the Labrador generally have a working life of 8 – 10 years while the medium size breeds like the Border Collie may be able to last one or two more seasons. Regardless all handlers have to be aware of their dogs physical condition and recognize the signs of advancing age. This is not as easy as it sounds given that dogs, like all animals, do not want to appear weak as that is a distinction of prey. Therefore to protect their instinctual safety and their social status dogs will hide weakness for as long as they can.

Working dogs, like athletes, peak at the mid-point of their career when experience and physical capability combine to create an intelligent, fast and effective animal that responds to the handler’s directions but still has the self-confidence to be independent. The peak can last for some time with good training but the handler will start notice changes. The major responsibility of the handler at this point is to identify the limitations of the dog by performance in training, not on a mission.

One of the first is the dog being obviously stiff and sore after a hard physical exertion. Later on the dog will start to pick and chose a route through avalanche debris where it once barreled across at top speed. At this point the handler has to learn to play to the strengths of experience more and accept limitations. As an example in a multi dog search the handler should advise the Team Leader (Incident Site Commander) to put a younger faster dog in the areas of high probability with the older dog covering the less likely areas. Furthermore an older dog can confirm weaker areas of interest of the younger dogs. This is valuable in difficult conditions such as heavily contaminated sites with little information on potential victim location. (This is standard procedure for Disaster Search Dogs). The working life can be extended through changes in diet and with the help of medications in the case of joint problems however there comes the time when the handler has to admit that the active career of the dog is coming to an end. This brings about a difficult time with hard decisions.

The first is whether or not the individual wants to continue being a dog handler. Sometimes this is an easy decision, as the person wants to move into a life that does not involve the mountains. It may be to support a family or to meet personal goals or there simply wasn’t enough real work for the team. Whatever the factors there is always the fact that a new dog means another 10-year commitment. Those who stay have generally found careers in the avalanche/mountain industry.

The next decision is when to start the new dog. There are two directions that can be taken. One to start while the older dog is still working and the other to wait for the retirement of the first dog.

In the former case the main advantage is that if all goes well the new dog is certified by the time the previous retires and there is no loss in the Active status. The difficulty is in the two years it takes to bring the new pup to active status the handler has to divide their time between the two animals. The handler has to bond with the puppy, imprint the search drive, instill obedience and acclimatize the puppy to their work environment. At the same time the older dog’s training has to be maintained as well as their health and fitness. There can be some advantages such as the older dog showing the puppy the pack hierarchy (obey the alpha) but it can be emotionally tough as the older dog who once received the handler’s full attention gets considerably less. Also some handlers are in families where there are dogs that are pets and the overall number of animals to take care of is a factor.
In contrast to this some handlers not only wait for the first dog to retire but for that point where it’s a one-dog family again. That way there is only the single animal to completely focus the attention on. If this is the decision the handler must accept that it might be some time before the retired dog passes on. (Professional handlers like the RCMP have their older dogs adopted into other homes but this is rarely an option for CARDA personnel.) As an example a Border Collie, who may be retired at around ten years of age, has a life expectancy of up to fifteen. Potentially there is a five-year gap where the handler is inactive.
The final decision is what breed of dog to get. While some go with the same breed others opt for an entirely new type. Some get a breed with a reputation for high performance and others take advantage of access to RCMP dogs that have been going through that process for a year before being deemed unsuitable for police work. Whatever the decision it is a common pitfall that a lot of experienced handlers show signs of.
Second dog handler syndrome is characterized by the handler expecting the new dog to behave and act exactly like the last one did. Experienced Handler is a relative term in that the person has only the previous dog to base their training on. It is all too easy to forget what it was like to have a puppy given that there can easily be as long as a decade or more since the handler had to train a puppy. Expectations can be too high and progress, or lack thereof gets measured in unrealistic terms. One of the most delicate tasks Instructors have is to tactfully find a way to get the handler to realize that they are starting over they have to take baby steps. Often an experienced handler will want to move quickly to the Intermediate stage where they are searching for articles. A strong handler will not deprive their dog of the power of live finds where the rewards are the greatest and the positive association of searching for a human imprints the devoted search drive needed.
Regardless of the path chosen the final stage of a CARDA team’s life is the late retired life. There often is a noticeable relaxation of discipline. It’s allowable in that the older dog does not have the energy of a younger dog and spends a great deal of time napping and taking it easy. Hopefully the dog will have a long happy retirement despite the physical toll taken on them by the job but sadly there will come a day where the handler will face the fact that the bond will be broken by factors beyond their control and the dog will pass on. A partnership which has taught the human so much about themselves often in ways not foreseen will end and the pain will be deeply felt. It is a testament to the rewards of being a dog handler that so many CARDA members have put themselves through this difficult time several times.

This article is dedicated to Attila, Warden Service Search and Rescue Dog for Banff National Park 2001 – 2006 who passed away this August at the age of fourteen. Along with her partner Mike Henderson Attila responded to over four hundred calls including seventy-two avalanches. Mike all of us in CARDA send our most sincere condolences and gratitude for allowing us to learn from your experiences with that amazing dog.

Glossary

Working Life

The time between certification and retirement. Generally dogs begin their working life at around one and a half to two years old and retire around at around ten

Peak

Where the dog team combines experience and high physical energy and performs at the highest level of the career.

Active Status

The team is a certified and on the call out lists to responding agencies

Work Environment

The conditions the dog will undergo while in its daily workplace. Includes living area, contact with public and transportation (I.e. helicopters)

Second Dog Handler Syndrome

Expecting the second dog to be like the last.

Retirement

Taking the dog off Active Status for good.

Realization

What the author with the ten-year-old Border Collie is struggling with.

Bond

The trust and respect between the dog and the human that creates all the highs during the working life and the deep hurt at the end

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