British Columbia·Photos

Avalanche dog teams patrol ski resorts ready to save a life

Avalanche dogs have one of the most critical, potentially life-saving missions in Canadian ski resorts. Every morning they have to head to work and be prepared for the worst.

Intense bond develops between dog and handler over years of training

Meet two of Whistler's avalanche rescue dogs

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5 years ago
2:26
Meet two of Whistler's avalanche rescue dogs 2:26

Henry the Border Collie is a super-athletic dog with a life-saving mission.

Every morning his job is to head to the top of Whistler Mountain and be ready to rescue people buried in an avalanche. 

Henry is one of about 25 specially trained dogs certified by the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association, or CARDA, that work on and around Canada's largest ski resorts.
Dogs certified by the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association must go through an extensive validation exam every year. (Chris Corday/CBC)
"You enter a relationship with these dogs that you hope could one day save a life," said veteran Whistler ski patroller and rescue-dog handler Ian Bunbury.
Henry's keen nose, sharp focus, and boundless energy make him an exceptional avalanche rescue dog. (Chris Corday/CBC)

He's trained four-year-old Henry since he was a puppy.

"We're a great team, we read each other really well, he knows what I expect," he said proudly as he zipped up Henry's special harness, which can even allow him to be lowered down helicopter lines during rescue operations.
Henry may be an intensely focused dog at work on Whistler Mountain, but he's an obedient and gentle companion at Ian Bunbury's home. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Strong connection between dog and handler

Bunbury has spent thousands of hours training Henry, not only to be a well-behaved pet, but also to be able to track down and sniff out people buried under the snow.

Henry diligently obeys every command that Bunbury makes at his family's home above Whistler's Creekside neighbourhood.
Henry zips down the stairs as he heads to work on Whistler Mountain well before dawn. (Chris Corday/CBC)

The bond between the handler and his dog is loving, but intense. 

"We are never apart. When I say I spend more time with this dog than with I do with my family, I'm not bragging about that. It's just the way it is," said Bunbury.

"He sleeps beside my bed. When my feet hit the floor he is like, 'OK, Dad, what are we going to do today?'"
Border Collies, Labradors, Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherds are some of the most common breeds of avalanche rescue dogs. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Short window for rescue

As air moves across the snow, avalanche dogs are able to pick up the scent of a person below the snow. They are trained to run toward that scent, where rescuers will help them dig.
Henry is constantly on alert on the job, attentive to his handler's every word. (Chris Corday/CBC)

"He [Henry] can cover an area that it would take 50 people a day to cover, a dog can cover it in half an hour," said Bunbury.

People caught in avalanches have a short window for survival — often 30 minutes or less — so finding them fast is critical, said Bunbury. 

"Henry is the guy. You are going to depend on him to save your life," said Bunbury as he put his dog through a number of training exercises in an area near Whistler's Roundhouse Lodge.
Henry and other Border Collies are often considered the super-athletes of dogs. (Chris Corday/CBC)

'Super-brainiac'

In a brief demonstration for CBC News, Henry sniffed out and ran straight for a piece of clothing that Bunbury had worn and buried earlier.

It only took perhaps a minute to find it, and maybe another minute to dig it out through the heavy snow.
Without any clue of where an item was buried four days prior, Henry quickly locates the piece of clothing under the deep snow. (Chris Corday/CBC)
Henry's treat for finding the sweater is a few tugs on the item with his handler. (Chris Corday/CBC)

His reward is a game of tug-of-war, as Bunbury loudly praised Henry for the successful find.

"That's really what we're exploiting here is the dog's prey drive, for him to hunt something and bring it back to the alpha leader of the relationship."
Despite his important job, Henry makes time for a fulfilling roll in the snow. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Bunbury says certain breeds like Border Collies, Labradors and German Shepherds are best for the job, but only the right kind of owner can match wits or have the energy to keep up with them.

"He's a super-athlete and a super-brainiac, too," Bunbury said of his dog.

"These Border Collies, they're actually smarter than they need to be to do this job."
Anne Kennedy and her dog Seren zoom down the slopes on Blackcomb. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Huge amount of terrain a challenge in B.C. 

At Whistler-Blackcomb, a minimum of two dogs patrol each of the resort's two mountains every day during ski season. 

Anne Kennedy and her nine-year-old Border Collie Seren patrol some of Canada's most expansive and challenging ski terrain on Blackcomb.
Anne Kennedy's dog Seren has been CARDA-validated for the past six years. (Chris Corday/CBC)

"Our main issue is our timely response to get somewhere," said Kennedy as she skied behind her speedy dog, who navigated the resort's steep slopes with ease.

"With this amount of terrain, that's the real issue."

Seren has never been called on to try and save a life in the six years since she became a validated avalanche rescue dog.

But Kennedy says she's able to search a huge area if a slide happens. 

"She can clear 100 square metres in about 10 minutes," she said.

Avalanches are a real risk in the Whistler area, occasionally even happening within resort boundaries, although more often people caught in slides are in the vast back country.
Seren is able to run almost as fast as her handler Anne Kennedy can ski. (Chris Corday/CBC)

In Europe, where ski resorts are much more compact and more densely populated than those in western Canada, rescue dogs have been able to successfully find people alive after avalanches.

But the reality is that over the 10-year career of a Canadian avalanche dog, very few will ever successfully rescue a victim.
Avalanche dogs like Seren typically have a decade-long career on the mountain. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Only one 'live find' ever in Canada

Most people who die in avalanches in the mountains of B.C. and Alberta get caught in the back country, where it takes rescue teams and dogs too long to reach them.

In fact, there's only ever been one 'live find' for a Canadian avalanche rescue dog, in December of 2000, when avalanche dog Keno saved a lift operator in Fernie, B.C.
Keno the avalanche dog receives an RCMP award for Canada's only recorded live retrieval in Fernie, B.C. in 2000. (CARDA)

Still, Bunbury says that hope is what motivates him to put in so much time and effort training with Henry.

"I've been caught in avalanches and I'd never want anyone to go through the horror of being buried," says Bunbury, who grew up skiing in Whistler. He has been a patroller for 25 years with three different dogs.

"It would be the absolutely pinnacle of my career to have a live find — that's why I got into it."
Ian Bunbury and Henry can often be spotted riding snowmobiles together on patrol around the resort. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Adventure-seekers heading into avalanche-prone areas are strongly advised to take tracking devices, and to be prepared to locate and dig out other members of their parties if they get into trouble.

But on or near resorts, the incredible noses of avalanche dogs like Henry are still crucial.

"People are going to get caught in avalanches.You want to save them," said Bunbury.

"The best day would be saving an avalanche victim."
Sharing a peck with the boss is a bonus reward for Henry. (Chris Corday/CBC)

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