The Fernie Alpine Resort is home to five resident avalanche rescue dogs: Three that are fully certified and another two that are in training. Last week, The Free Press got to meet three of them.
Tabor, a black lab, is six years old and has been working on the hill for the last five seasons. He’s been involved in dozens of site-clearing jobs over the years, where ski patrollers inspect avalanche fields just in case there were any people in the area, but he spends most of the time hanging out with his owner and handler doing training exercises, playing - and above all, waiting and ready for anything to happen that requires a rescue dog on the scene.
“He loves it - it’s a game of tug,” said Sean Caira, Tabor’s owner and handler.
“All these dogs love to play, they love a job, they love routine, they love to be put to work.”
It’s a lot of work to become an avalanche rescue dog - nearly two year’s worth, to be precise. First there’s a Spring assessment to find out if a young dog has the ‘right stuff’ to be a rescue dog, then there’s a winter assessment, followed by a year’s worth of training and exercises, and finally another assessment before they can receive their Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA) certification.
For Sean, having an avalanche rescue dog had long been a goal of his since he’d become a ski patroller over 15 years ago. Tabor is his first avalanche rescue dog, and while he’s a rescue dog through-and-through, he’s still a dog.
“Tabor - he loves people, he’d be foaming at the mouth to come over and say hi, so I need to give him that outlet,” said Sean.
For his own day, Sean said coming to work with his best friend was the best part of the job - along with often being the first to ski on some of Fernie’s famous powder snow through the season.
For Tabor, fresh tracks or no, he seems to enjoy every day, having taught himself how to throw his own ball.
“There’s no bad days at the office for this guy.”’
Rescue dog-in training, Sadie (17 months) is another of FAR’s five dogs on the hill.
Another black lab - which are noted to be ideal for avalanche rescue due to their cold tolerance, coat, good temperament and natural retrieving instinct - Sadie passed her Spring assessment, and only just this January passed her Winter assessment and is well on the way to being an avalanche rescue dog.
For her owner and handler, Steve Morrison, while Sadie’s proven she has what it takes to be a rescue dog so far - with a keen nose and the energy to bound around in the snow seemingly for hours - there was still a way to go, but she was doing great.
“She’s a few months in. Tail end of this season, and then all summer and fall we can do dryland stuff - and work on her obedience a little more,” said Steve as he played tug with Sadie.
Sadie’s welcome contribution through the interview consisted of trying to pull Steve off his feet, and fetching her toy which Steve dutifully threw into a snowbank dozens of times to showcase her budding rescue talents.
Avalanche rescue dogs are trained to pick up on human scents in the snow, so they often train by searching for items of clothing placed by handlers. If they find a scent cone on the hillside they can be on top of it’s source in barely any time at all.
Sadie is Steve’s third avalanche rescue dog, and going by Sadie’s energy, he has his work cut out for him. It’s Steve’s 26th season working with FAR as a ski patroller, and when asked what the best part of his job is, he simply gestured as the ball of energy tugging at the toy he was holding.
“It’s fun bringing your dog up on a powder day, doing some dog tracks!”
Drift (two) who is a purebred border collie is FAR’s newest CARDA-certified avalanche rescue dog, having passed his final winter assessment in January.
Since then, he’s been a regular on the hill, and according to his owner and handler, Paul Vanderpyl, “he’s a crowd favourite, because he’s so friendly.”
Paul explained that he and Drift spent most of their days up the top of the mountain ready to deploy when needed, so you might have seen them out playing at the top of White Pass.
It’s not all games - at least to the handler. Avalanche rescue dogs need to be obedient and very well trained, with Paul showcasing a few of Drift’s latest tricks.
For Paul, being able to take his dog skiing on a daily basis had been a major motivator for most of his eight-year career as a ski patroller.
“I had that goal pretty much since I started working here. It took me a while, and now I have an awesome dog and I get to bring him to work. It makes the day go by fast - I get to come out here a lot and play with him.
Drift is his first avalanche rescue dog, and he’s been proving himself as a welcome member of the FAR team for the last two years. It’s a challenge, but it’s worth it, said Paul.
“Border collies can be challenging, but I feel like I have a great dog. He’s super focused. Loves working, loves coming to work with me. I pull out his vest in the morning and he’s all excited and ready to go to work.”
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