Training with Avalanche Rescue Dogs

Photography by Jay Dash and John Walter // Feature photo by John Walter

Greg and Monica, members of Ruffwear’s Product Development team, recently returned from a trip to Alta Ski Area, where they attended the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue (WBR) avalanche rescue dog training school, which takes place every other year.

WBR performs rapid response for avalanche rescue, winter related mountain rescue, and medical evacuation incidents using trained professionals and search and rescue dogs. WBR personnel are full-time avalanche professionals who are familiar with local terrain, snowpack, and current conditions in Utah’s Wasatch range.

The training school is where handlers (usually patrollers) and dogs come together from around the country to train together and hone their skills. Ruffwear employees attend WBR’s school every other year. Below, Greg and Monica share their experiences.

How did Ruffwear become involved with avalanche rescue dogs? What does this partnership mean for Ruffwear?

Greg: Ruffwear has been involved with the avalanche dogs for roughly the last twelve years. Our Founder, Patrick Kruse, felt that Ruffwear had some great gear that could benefit the avalanche dog handlers. The first item of gear was the Web Master™ Harness. The Web Master provides a stable handle that the handler uses to load and unload their dog from a chairlift. As the avalanche rescue community has become more familiar with Ruffwear gear, they have continued to adopt more and more equipment into their everyday training and work.

Monica: The partnership with WBR is hugely inspiring on many levels. Witnessing the work that these dogs and handlers are doing keeps our engines running and adds that level of excitement to making sure that our gear is functional, even in extreme working conditions.

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Photo: Jay Dash

Why does Ruffwear attend WBR and other avalanche rescue dog training programs?

Greg: WBR is the leading avalanche rescue dog training organization in the United States. We attend WBR and other training schools to share our products with individuals that are very in tune with both outdoor equipment and their dogs, and to have first hand communication with the users. We hear what is working and what is not. We use this feedback to refine existing gear and design new gear. If the gear works for these hardworking dogs, it will likely meet the needs of other dogs and humans as well.

Monica: For me, it’s design research, which is an essential part of any design process. Observing how the handlers are working with their dogs sparks ideas that start as solving problems for them, and typically end up also being great solutions for our customers. These patrollers also put our products to work harder than most, so if there is a flaw in a product, they typically will find it before an average Ruffwear customer. Getting their feedback is huge. Also, Ruffwear is home to a bunch of skiers, and we genuinely just want to learn more and help out wherever we can. It is a ton of fun.

What’s a typical day like at WBR?

Greg: The day starts with an early breakfast. This is a great chance for a morning briefing and to reinforce the plan for the day. From there, it’s out to the snow for some large group dog socialization and obedience. The teams then split into their respective groups based on where the dogs currently are in their training. Experience can range from ten weeks to five years of age. The bulk of the day is spent running the dogs and handlers through a number of different real life scenarios to prepare the dogs for what they will experience should a real avalanche occur. They dogs are trained using play, specifically “tugging” on a toy, as their reward.  Often the entire day is spent out on the snow, exposed to the elements. Grabbing a quick bite to eat or a quick drink of water is secondary to the focused training. Following a hearty dinner for both dogs and handlers, there is a chance to share the observations of the day. Students and instructors share what is known as “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of the day.

Monica: Wake up early, grab a bag of Ruffwear swag, head down to breakfast. Make sure everyone is set for the day with jackets, pads, toys, leashes, harnesses, then head outside for some morning obedience training as a whole group at the base of the mountain. Split into groups based on skill/experience level, and run drills all day. The drills are different variations of burying a human quarry (in many cases, us) in a small snow cave, having the dog follow the scent to the hole, digging out the human, and ending in a VERY exciting game of tug as a reward. They also practice things like skiing and riding chair lifts with their dog, and getting used to things like helicopters and snow mobiles. During this time, we are there to help. We either hide in holes and act as the quarry, help out with burying other people, or just tag along to observe and talk to patrollers and instructors about their experiences, struggles, and ideas. Around 4pm we wrap up training — if there’s time we hustle to get a couple laps of skiing Alta in while the chair lifts are still spinning. After dinner, there is a debrief of the day and a talk from an expert of some sort.

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Photo: John Walter

What was your favorite part of WBR? What was the most challenging part?

Greg: My favorite part of WBR is watching these amazing dogs work! I also enjoy connecting with the many friends I have met over ten-plus years of attending theses schools. The most challenging part for me is often the weather. Training goes on, regardless of the conditions. I have worked through extreme cold, extreme heat (relative to typical winter conditions), wind, driving rain, and fog. The weather can really wear on you. The training must go on because it is the reality of any real life work or rescue situation.

Monica: I loved bringing some of the new toys we are working on and circulating them through the group for people to try. One of our new toys was designed specifically for avy dogs and their handlers, and it was awesome getting to observe it in action, and even use it myself as a quarry. I also had a ton of fun getting to know everyone and hearing their stories.

There weren’t many challenges that weren’t also fun… I’d say the one part that stands out was the one day we were up on the mountain hiding in snow holes all day, and Greg and I didn’t eat our lunches until almost 4. We still decided the best idea was to follow one of our patroller friends down a pretty gnarly run at Alta with our huge backpacks on — while hungry and loopy. It was not pretty, but it was a ton of fun!

What did you learn at this year’s WBR – any big takeaways?

Greg: The big take away for me this year was that we are on track with some great new toys we are developing for this community.

Monica: This was actually my first WBR, so pretty much the entire week was learning and understanding the process better. I was able to make some notes for improvements on current products that we can improve in redesigns, and identify some new areas where I think we will be able to provide new and better solutions. That’s all I will say for now, stay tuned for more!

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Photo: Jay Dash

Having trained with avalanche rescue dogs, what do you think most people should know about these dog-and-patroller teams?

Greg: What I would like people to understand is that in most cases, these hardworking handlers do not earn an extra dime to put in the hard work and time needed to train these great dogs. They do this because the are passionate and proud of the the work they do with their dogs.

Monica: I think this is more of a blanket statement for working dogs, but understanding that these dogs are working is huge. As cute as they are, running up to them and petting them can confuse them, or interfere with the work they are doing at the moment. It’s best to address the handler first, and ask if you can give their dog some attention. There is a good chance they will say yes, and they will make sure you do so in an appropriate manner.

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Photo: John Walter

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