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Gunnar M. Berg, Norway

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First Steps of Avalanche Training

Training a dog to become an Avalanche Dog is a physically hard task for the handler. It involves a lot of digging, and I mean A LOT of digging. It also means that the handler (during training the dog) has to go through an education on avalanches, snow, map reading, winter survival training, first aid, and learn how to take care of his- / her-selves and the dog under extreme winter conditions. You will spend a lot of weekends during the winter in the mountains training.

This is from digging helper cave later on in training.

You need to understand that one training session involves extensive planning, and takes a lot of preparation before you can start training.

I started this training with my dog when she was 4 months old. Before starting, I did drive training on my puppy and taught her to play with the “ball on a string”. When the puppy could play good with me, I got one of my training buddies who understands how to play without being too dominant for the dog. The purpose of this is to teach the dog to play with the helpers that the dog later will find. If you have a puppy that is showing problems with new places and environments, you should do more environments training before you start. If you do not have a puppy but an older dog, you can do the same training steps.

The most common dog breeds used in Norway for Avalanche Dogs are German Shepherd Dog, Giant Schnauzer, Belgian Malinois, Rottweiler and some of the larger retriever breeds. There are some other breeds like Border Collie, Springer Spaniel, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, but these are not very common. When you choose a dog for this work you need to think about the following things.
  1. You need a dog with a good prey or food drive. Prey drive is the easiest in my opinion.
  2. You need a dog that is big enough to work in heavy snow, and work fast. On the exams you are going to search an area of 200 X 200 meters in 20 minutes, often in deep snow.
  3. It is easier to do this training with a dog with good fur, but not the long fur that gets snow attached to it. To pass the exams you will be working outside in rough winter weather everyday 10 to 12 hours, for a whole week. You will also spend a night in a snow cave with your dog.

Helper: the person the dog is supposed to find, and the person that rewards the dog.
Cave or Grave: the place in the snow which we dig out to place the helper in.
Search pole/Avalanche pole: 3 meter long pole detachable, to search the snow.
Marking: when the dog finds the helper in the snow, it starts digging. This is called Marking.
Reward: toy or food that the dog is absolutely crazy about.
Diggers: training buddies that help to dig the cave, and dig out the helper form the cave.

Here in Norway, the first snow normally comes in October – November, but the amount is normally not enough to start training up in the mountains. We need at least 1 to 1.5 meters of snow to dig a helper cave. So when the first snow arrives, we go to a parking lot which has been plowed, and the bulldozer has piled the snow up in small hills. In these small hills we can start marking training.

Tundra and Helga illustrating first steps of Avalanche training (dog finding the helper)

Use an avalanche pole 3 meters long to find a good spot to dig a helper cave in the small hill of snow.

The cave needs to be 2 meters long and wide enough and high enough inside that there is room for the helper to play with the dog inside the cave. It’s very important to make the cave huge inside the first times for new and young dogs and especially for a puppy. Remember, the play with dog is going to be done inside the cave, and the dog needs to learn to be safe inside the cave with the helper. This job is easier done when the cave is bigger in the first steps of training. Save the snow blocks you carve out for later.

When you have taken away all the snow inside the cave in 2 meters long square you begin to close up the square with snow blocks. When you do this, you leave a small opening on one of the ends.

Here you can see the helper popping up in the cave opening.

The helper starts to play with the dog 10 to 15 meters from the cave. The helper plays with the dog with the reward which is the dogs favorite. The play here is done for two reasons: 1) the dog gets to know a new helper and 2) to bring the dog up in drive. If you have a dog which is a food drive dog, let the helper play with the dog using food.

When the dog is in high drive, the helper takes the reward (tug, Kong, ball, food) and runs away to the cave. The handler holds the dog on a handler line and encourages the dog to run after the helper. The helper gets into the cave and sticks his/her head out and calls the dog’s name. The helper then goes back inside the cave quickly to trigger the dog’s prey drive even more. The handler releases the dog, the dog runs to the cave opening and goes inside to find the reward and the helper.

The work done by the helper at this point is very important. You may be working on the edge of avoidance with some dogs, so you need to do everything right. For some dogs going inside the cave is a huge stepping stone. I have seen dogs where the helper work was incorrect at an early stage, and though these dogs have been good in drive and everything else, the marking on the grave has been a struggle the rest of their lives.

Here are some guidelines to do proper helper work inside the cave:

When you do helper work inside the cave, lie on your back with your head as far away from the opening as possible, and have the reward ready. If you have a ball on a string, let the ball lie so the dog can see it when he enters the opening of the cave. Do not eyeball the dog. As a helper you should be as sweet as you can in your most unthreatening manner and body language. Do not force the dog to stay and play, if he wants to take the reward outside let him do that. When the dog gains experience it will stay longer and longer in the cave by itself.

Some dogs will need a little time here before entering the cave and they may be a little suspicious of the helper. The handler and the helper need to give the dog time to figure this out on his own. If the dog does not try to enter the cave and just stops at the entrance, the handler should give him support by going over to the dog and looking inside the cave. Most commonly though the dog runs straight in and starts playing. Remember that prey drive is the key. Some dogs with a lot of drive and guts will see the helper and run in after just 2-3 repetitions. It’s just enough for them to see the helper pop his head outside the grave for a second or two.

After doing this 4-10 times (depending on the dog), and when you see that the dog enjoys going inside the cave and shows no fear at all, you are ready to take it to the next level in training.

Start the next training step with the helper doing drive work with the dog outside the grave then running inside as before. One or two diggers put soft snow blocks in the entrance of the cave and cover it up. It is important that the snow covering the entrance is soft and that it’s not too much. The dog is supposed to get inside by only striking the wall once or twice with the paw. Let the dog keep his focus on the helper inside the cave on a handler line during the covering of the hole -- do NOT remove the dog during this work. If you have a dog with less prey drive, I may require the helper inside the cave to call to the dog during the covering of the cave opening. When the diggers are done, they go behind the dog handler and stand still. Release the dog while pointing towards where the opening was. The dog will run up to the point and if it is high enough in drive it will start digging. When the dog gets a hole and goes inside, the handler steps up to the cave hole and praises the dog while it is inside the cave with the helper.

This is how it looks like from the helper view inside the cave. The dog is a Giant Schnauzer.

By doing this and increasing the amount of snow on the cave entrance as the dog gains experience you will get a great marking. Also decrease the amount of drive building before the cave is covered up. Increase the distance and send from a different angle. Use different graves in different locations. The goal is to get to the point where the dog is sent to the covered up grave without seeing the helper being dug down.

Picture on the left you can see the dig in hole and the dog has gone inside the cave. In the right picture you can see Tundra coming out of the cave with the reward. Sitting is my wife Helga. The pictures are a bit dark because they are taken in January before the sun returns, and during this period we only have a couple of hours of what looks like daylight.

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