Training key as avalanche canines excel

By Lin Ferguson

Avalanche dogs working on New Zealand's skifields are invaluable, Mt Ruapehu Ski patrol member Phil Couch says.

The dogs are trained to use airborne scent to locate people under snow.

"Once they are trained, they are incredible search animals."

Handlers all had to be highly skilled skiers and board riders, he said.

"Then they can be considered for avalanche safety and first aid. Mountaineering qualifications were also a huge advantage," he said.

The avalanche dogs were trained under the training schedule of Land Search and Rescue (SAR), he said. SAR is the volunteer organisation that provides land search and rescue services to the police and as a specialist group under Land SAR it is also the official search dog group in New Zealand.

There are four in the Central Plateau region. Most rescue dogs are labradors, beagles or border collies. They are trained from 6 months old.

"If you want to be a handler you can find all the advice on puppy selection and training tips, but if you want to train your pup as a search dog you need to find an operational handler in your region to talk to before getting a dog" Mr Couch said.

"And, of course, you have spend hours training as a volunteer when you join up with the local SAR group."

SAR has a set of standards for dog teams and all dogs are assessed annually, he said.

To become operational, the dogs are given a tough assessment process and have to achieve the standards set by SAR and the New Zealand Police Dog Section.

Ice, a 6-year-old black lab, is the newest member of the Mr Couch's family. She is the family's second avalanche rescue dog.

Ice gained certification for rescue work two years ago.

New Zealand Land SAR Search Dogs has more than 80 members and provides the SAR sector with 12 operational avalanche dogs and 15 operational wilderness search dogs.

Members volunteer more than 16,000 training hours per year with 1000 hours for administration and operational teams average more than 1000 hours (combined total) on searches per year throughout New Zealand.

"It is an amazing organisation, and it's great for members of the public to know about these clever dogs," he said.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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