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March 31, 2014: Dog Training: Dog is in the Details

I have been thinking that a search and rescue dog (all disciplines included) can only be as good as its trainer. If you don’t take your dog to training, the dog won’t make any progress. And if you don’t work your dog during the training session, the dog won’t make any progress. Seems like these statements border on the obvious. Actually, they are blindingly obvious, which is why some don’t fully realize this.

Yesterday, dog was in the details. By this I mean that in the process of doing a day’s training with Ryder, the above came to mind many, many times and were in fact a motivator.

The training venue was Hatcher Pass, which is in mountain country. Pete and I arrived – saw that the Mat Sat trailer was there, and that Steve (the logistics expert) was signing out radios, probes, beacons, and vests. And Stacie B. was passing out printed maps/instructions with the day’s plan. She explained to us that we were going to do avalanche work, upwards of where we were based. There would be three staging areas, and each one would contain a subject, a group leader, and a third person, who would assist with avalanche rescue protocol and maintain contact with the buried subject. All would be present when the dogs in training searching for the subject.

We were all to be shuttled to the staging areas with snowmachines; as would be our dogs. The more experienced dogs would go up first. They would find the subjects in the three staging areas.

So, Stacey Re and I were taken, via snowmachine, to Staging Area II. I wasn’t relishing the thought of riding in that sled. And, quite frankly, it was unnerving, bouncing around in that thing. As Steve sped up, I hung on for dear life. Once on site, I basked in the glory of my having remained in place, I then quickly got down to the business of getting a snow cave ready for the first subject. This turned out to be Aaron’s daughter Becky (he is the fellow with the Saint Bernard). Becky, 10, was an idea subject. She was articulate, and let us know, via radio, that she was okay. Shortly thereafter, she was “rescued by Vicky Parks and Bettles.

I was next buried in an adjacent snow cave and was “found” by Vikki Gross’s dog Taiya. (In this instance, the dog was to locate me and then run over to another cave, where she was to locate another subject. It was what I called a rough find—the roof of the cave collapsed on my back, neck, and head. I could not move. I remained calm, and focused on my breathing. Soon enough, the people on hand extricated me.

It was then time to work the more inexperienced dogs. So, I took a snowmachine ride downhill (on the back) and got Ryder. I’d been told to hang on to her, and not let go of her, for if she baled, it would be twice as hard to get her back into the trailer. We took off – she squirmed and wiggled, and tried her damnedest to free herself of my grasp. I hung onto her (as Pete would say) like a drunk hangs onto his beer). Finally, dog and owner arrived at Staging Area II.

Ryder was then (quite quickly) put to work. Joyce, Ryder’s subject, hid in an uncovered snow cave. Ryder repeatedly raced over to, and located Joyce, who played tug with the very frisky dog. Joyce, like so many others, was a very good subject. We did this a few times, then (and this was the tough part) quit while we were ahead. Ryder did, during the process of this portion of her training, become more comfortable with getting into the cave.

After, Ryder and I got into a differt snowmachine sled and proceeded downhill. I had been fretting about the downhill run, but this time, Ryder was more relaxed. I loosened my grip a bit, and she relaxed even more.

I figured that the work day was over. But no, there was to be a grande finale. Turned out it was a good one. As Steve (the snowmachine guy) told those of us who were in parking lot, if we wanted, he would take us and our dogs up to where there had recently been an avalanche, and walk across the debris. As he added, it would be difficult walking, and maybe hard on the dogs. I decided that I’d go up solo, and check it out. And if it appeared to be safe, I’d go back and get Ryder. As it turned out, I didn’t need to go back for Ryder. Pete, who’d spent his day in Staging Areas I and II volunteered to go back with Steve and get her. So this is what he did. We were soon joined by all who were still in attendance.

It was an instance of safety first. We paired up, and in groups, walked up to, and onto the avalanche rubble. I cannot fully describe what it feels like to walk around in an avalanche debris zone. I can say that it’s humbling – I was reminded (again) that nature (when it wants to be) is a strong, powerful, formidable force. And, conversely, we are a small force in comparison.

Pete and I went up and walked on the ice chunks together. Ryder, wise dog that she is, did not scramble along beside us; but rather, she did an outrun on the adjacent non-debris area. However, once we were on the top, she scrambled up the concrete-like slabs and joined us.

The words that came to mind in clambering (note, I used this word in talking about yesterday’s debris) about where ‘At Play in the Fields of the Lord.’” This is the title of a Peter Mattheson book, one in which he spent considerable time in high country.

We all began the descent to the parking lot after finishing our respective walkabouts. The high point of Ryder’s day was being allowed to race downhill and play with the other dogs, three of whom are herding stock. I then realized that toys aren’t the only reward. Training days like this simply have to end on an extraordinarily good note.

Back to my initial idea, that a search and rescue dog is only being as good as its owner. This wasn’t the easiest of days for me. I wasn’t too keen on the prospect of being hauled around in a snowmobile sled. And I was less keen about the prospect of being hauled around in a snowmobile sled with Ryder. And I wasn’t overly thrilled about being buried alive in a snow cave. And I had my reservations about walking around in an avalanche debris area. This is because I tend to fear the worst. But I did it all because I trusted Stacie B and those who had put her initial plan into action. This now begs the question; would I ever do this again? The answer is yes, in a heartbeat.


Vickie and Bettles on sled


Tara doing Avalanche Rescue Practice