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Angel Dogs with a Mission
Divine Messengers in Service to All Life
By Allen Anderson, Linda Anderson
New World LibraryCopyright © 2008 Allen and Linda Anderson
All rights reserved.
A Mission to Serve
Celebrate your purpose and be grateful for it. It is a gift; indeed, it is a double gift, one that you bestow to others and one that has been bestowed on you. You are fortunate to have a noble purpose, and the rest of the world is fortunate that you have one.
— William Damon
Keno, the Wonder Dog, Delivers an Avalanche Miracle
* * *
Fernie, British Columbia, Canada
Since 1979 I've been a ski patroller and avalanche forecaster working in a winter paradise. The Rocky Mountains of British Columbia offer one of the world's most pristine and adventurous areas for outdoor sports. As peaceful as the snow-capped mountains appear to be, they are also fraught with danger. Deep snow and steep slopes combine to pose the constant risk of avalanche. Skiers and boarders must always be on their guard.
With as many as sixteen people killed each year in avalanches in Canada, highly efficient handler-and-dog search teams are essential for mountain safety. An avalanche travels from sixty to a hundred miles per hour, and the victim has only a 50 percent chance of surviving more than twenty-five minutes. Ninety-five percent of avalanche victims die within the first two hours.
In the mid-eighties I met Sue Boyd, another ski patroller who had an avalanche search dog. Watching Sue and her dog together made me consider dog handling as a way to expand my horizons. I got a dog and started training with the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA), a nonprofit charitable organization that provides excellent avalanche search-and-rescue team training for Canada.
The CARDA website says that avalanche dogs can do a coarse search of an area in thirty minutes, whereas humans using probes would take up to four hours searching the same area. With a dog's heightened olfactory ability, the animal can pick up the scent of a person below as much as twelve feet of snow. Although weather conditions affect the outcome of an accident, time becomes the major factor in whether someone will live or die after being buried under mounds of snow and ice.
Keno, the Survivor
In 1996 my first dog, K2, was getting on in years. To further my avalanche rescue interest, I adopted a new puppy named Keno, the only survivor of a litter. Keno's mother was Sue's purebred chocolate Labrador retriever, a trained avalanche rescue dog. The neighbor's dog, a collie named Lucky, had jumped the fence and bred with Keno's mother. This made Keno a rare, strangely beautiful golden Lab, whose thick coat of alabaster fur gave the impression that dog and snow were one. Despite the freezing-cold weather in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, Keno's wagging tail and friendly disposition warmed the hearts of everyone who met him.
Keno was a pleasant, sociable dog, but he did not like being petted on the head. If someone came near, he would sniff and be friendly but back away from letting the person pet anything other than his rump. It was as if he sensed he had an important job to do that commanded more respect than most people show to an ordinary dog with a pat on the head.
Keno was a puppy when I first met him, and I observed that he was big, fat, and healthy. His hardy body made me think he would be well suited for outdoor search-and-rescue work in the mountains. Keno enjoyed rolling around in the snow. If he found even a patch, he'd tumble in it. Later, I reflected on how surprisingly appropriate it was that this dog who had been the only survivor of his litter, had a father named Lucky, and loved snow became one of the world's best-known avalanche search-and-rescue dogs.
Keno's Training and Certification
Keno was enthusiastic and easy to train, and caught on quickly to avalanche search-and-rescue tasks. I only had to show him what to do once, and he'd learn it right away.
The initial training takes about two years. A dog-and-handler team trains daily, and must be tested and reassessed each year to remain actively certified and at peak performance ability. The dog handler has to show that he or she can search a snow avalanche with probes and electronic transceivers, devices that people carry outdoors on mountains to ensure that they can be found quickly under snow. The search-and-rescuer must be a proficient mountain and backcountry skier who is knowledgeable about snowpack structure, avalanche terrain, and how to select the best route for a search. Of course, this person must have all the skills necessary to rescue a victim after finding him or her.
An avalanche search dog needs to respond to basic obedience commands and hand signals. The dog has to have excellent agility and retrieval skills, and needs to be able to search snow avalanches for live victims and articles as well as travel on vehicles with the dog handler.
In avalanche-rescue training sessions, the handler skis up to someone who plays the role of witness to an accident. The witness gives the handler details about what happened. When I'd ski to a witness at a training scenario, there were times when, before I even finished interviewing the witness, Keno had already begun searching or even dug out the first hidden article. He knew the goal and what his job was. From all indications he really liked the work.
Another thing I especially appreciated about Keno was that he kept working for as long as an hour without getting tired or bored. I'd give him a break, and he'd go right back to searching again. In this type of job, persistence is essential. Some dogs don't work as long as a half hour before losing interest if they haven't found anything, as if to say, "What are we going to do next?"
In addition to Keno's endurance, he had another essential quality of an avalanche search dog — independence. Although he'd mastered the basic commands of "sit," "stay," "come," "fetch," and "heel" off leash, I didn't demand a high level of obedience from Keno. An avalanche dog needs to be similar to sheepdogs or herding dogs, with a mind of his or her own that doesn't require looking to the handler to figure out everything. Keno had to discern a weak scent from a deeply buried article and sort out how to find it. Although I usually told him which direction to search, I didn't know how he was going to locate, zero in on, and dig up an article. He needed to use his own reasoning and problem-solving skills.
Keno wore a vest when it was time to work. Putting on the vest signaled to him that he had to be 100 percent under my control and couldn't run free. Taking off his collar triggered him to start the search. Knowing he was no longer on leash gave him the idea that he had to start thinking for himself. As the handler, my job was to make sure he covered an entire site. His job was not to miss any scent.
When on a search site, a handler doesn't want the dog to follow him or her around. Instead, the handler tells the dog to go and range over a wide area in a left-to-right direction. The dog must work on his own at a distance from the handler. The dog who can't do this is considered to be "handler bound." A dog who is too well trained in obedience commands might be afraid of getting into trouble for showing initiative. Avalanche search dogs need a strong drive to work on their own.
Like other avalanche search-and-rescue dogs, Keno lived in a kennel. His was at my home, and I gave him attention whenever he did a search. At the end of each training session or rehearsal, the handlers played a big tug-of-war with the dogs. They let the dogs dig up an old, woolen shirt or sweater and play with it. Keno loved when I gave him a new glove that he could rip to shreds. I'd roll around with and pet him, then sit and cuddle with him. I'd give praise by telling him what a great dog he was. After a search or a training exercise, the avalanche rescue dog looks forward to the rewards that follow. The promise of goodies at the end makes searching fun.
Keno was a year or two old by the time we were certified as a senior avalanche-rescue dog team by CARDA in 1998, and received a medal and certificate. Prior to training Keno, I had registered as a dog handler with the Provincial Emergency Program in British Columbia and become a senior CARDA-certified handler. I was an active member of the Fernie Alpine Resort ski-patrol rescue team and worked as its ski-patrol safety supervisor. I also held a valid Standard First Aid certificate.
By the time Keno and I were available for call-out, the dog had no hesitation about being strapped in a harness and lifted into the sky by a helicopter. He didn't fear being loaded onto a ski lift, snowmobile, or snowcat for backcountry and ski-area rescue. Keno had proven that his temperament, discipline, and stability would make him a first-rate avalanche search dog.
We continued our training at Fernie by doing two searches each week, using well-scented, large wool sweaters as hidden articles. We also did live quarry searches in which someone hides in a small snow cave amid avalanche debris in a location unknown to the dog and handler.
Since Fernie gets an average of twenty-nine feet of snow each year — as high as a three-story building — and has five bowls with countless glades, steeps, powder, bumps, and chutes, it's important for the ski-patrol rescue team to be vigilant. On December 20, 2000, just prior to the resort's official opening, I was very grateful that Keno and I had spent the time and effort required to prepare for saving lives.
Keno Makes His First Real Search
The first search Keno and I performed in an actual rescue situation happened on a day when the Fernie Alpine Resort had prepared half the mountain as a safe zone for skiers. We were still doing avalanche control and setup on another part of the mountain. Before the resort opened to the public, the lift operators, who worked for the patrol, were given designated routes to take.
Twenty-one-year-old Ryan Radchenko was working his first day on his new job as lift operator at the top of the White Pass chairlift. He had misinterpreted the instructions and thought that, while on break, he could use any ski run instead of merely the designated safe route.
Ryan had done carpentry at Fernie that summer. In the fall, I had brought Keno to work one day and happened to introduce him to Ryan, who had held out his hand to Keno and said, "Keno, get a good sniff. You never know what may happen. You may have to rescue me this winter." We had all laughed at the comment, because a dog doesn't dig up a person from remembering that person; the dog is trained to find any human scent.
On this day, when Keno would be called to rescue Ryan, the young man traversed onto an avalanche slope that had been blasted that morning. Two patrollers, Dave Richards and Paul Wright, were crossing the slope when Ryan skied up to twenty feet below them. The patrollers asked, "What are you doing there? Why are you going for a run in the closed area? Come with us. We'll get you out of here."
Dave asked Ryan if he had an avalanche transceiver on. He didn't.
Just as Dave said, "You need to come with us," the slope broke underneath the young man, and a thundering wave of snow pushed him down the mountain. Dave skied quickly off the avalanche. Horrified, the two patrollers watched, while the snow, as compact as wet concrete, swept Ryan one to two hundred meters. Ryan disappeared into a cloud of snow that held him in its grip. Although Ryan fought to stay on top of the snow, the avalanche buried him eight feet beneath the surface, at the bottom of the slope, somewhere underneath the chairlift.
After Dave and Paul called in the emergency, the ski-patrol dispatcher alerted all patrollers to the accident site. I heard the news of an avalanche burial confirmed on my radio. It troubled me that Ryan did not have a transceiver, making this situation even more dangerous.
Before heading to the slope, I called for someone from the maintenance department to bring Keno from the base on a snowmobile.
I got onto the ski lift and rode it to the top of the avalanche, feeling scared and pessimistic about finding Ryan under these circumstances. If we didn't locate him soon, he would die. As soon as his air supply ran out, he would suffocate from asphyxiation by breathing his own carbon dioxide. Also, he might be severely injured from hitting trees or rocks as the fast-moving avalanche hurtled him down the mountain.
When I arrived at the site where Ryan was buried, Sue Boyd and Keno's mother were already there. I could see ten to fifteen searchers randomly probing and working with shovels. It wasn't a huge area, only about an acre of deposit, but its width presented a big challenge for quickly finding a body. We started poking holes in the snowpack so the scent could rise and make it easier for the dogs to find Ryan.
By the time I arrived, Ryan had been buried for fifteen minutes. I knew the snow was swiftly transforming into an icy tomb with no way for light and air to reach him. I still had to wait for Keno's arrival. Time was running out. The search dogs would soon become Ryan's last hope for survival.
I was relieved to see my dog running up to me over the top of the avalanche after the lift-maintenance person brought Keno on a snowmobile. I immediately took off his collar and commanded, "Search, Keno."
We split up the area with the other avalanche search-dog team. Keno began air-scenting and covering the site. He snuffled his nose into the snow. It had now been over twenty-two minutes since the avalanche.
I was torn between continuing to probe and keeping an eye on Keno. I saw him start frantically digging into an area of solidly packed snow. In less than two minutes, Keno pulled up Ryan's glove. He had ripped it off Ryan's hand, which was sticking up beneath a little over a foot of snow. The young man had had the presence of mind to push his arm toward the snow's surface before starting to lose consciousness. His head was underneath the snow with his body one and a half meters down.
I ran over to where Keno stood with the glove in his mouth and reached for Ryan's extended hand. It felt limp and lifeless in mine.
I shouted for the other searchers to join me. Looking over my shoulder and sticking his sniffing nose into the group as far as possible, Keno watched with eagerness. I started digging straight down as quickly as possible. I had to reach Ryan fast and get air to him before his body shut down completely.
As I dug closer to his head and uncovered it, I could see that Ryan was unconscious. I yelled, "He's alive and breathing!" Although he still had color in his face, it was impossible to tell if he would make it. His eyes were open but unblinking, with constricted pupils. I couldn't tell if his legs had bent back under his head or if his body had been crushed into some other fatal contortion. His temperature might have dropped, leaving him hypothermic.
In the first moments after I did emergency first aid, Ryan remained unconscious but breathed in response to the oxygen therapy. Now I knew he would survive.
By the time we pulled Ryan out of the snow and slid a spinal board under him, he had been buried for close to twenty-five minutes. We skied Ryan on the board down the hill to an ambulance that waited to take him to the hospital.
A Happy Ending for Everyone
An astonishing fact began to sink in: we had made our first live find. Keno had saved Ryan's life. The extensive CARDA training enables us to pull off a rescue so that everything occurs in a practical sequence. Although I'd trained for years, I didn't think finding someone alive would happen to me, but I sure was glad when it worked out that way.
The happy ending of this rescue came about when Ryan returned to Fernie from the hospital only a half hour later. By then, he knew that Keno had saved his life. He was very appreciative and thanked all the patrol handlers and search dogs, especially Keno. He was shaken but talking and ready to go back to work to finish his shift. We sent him home for the day anyway. He continued to work at Fernie for a few more years.
CARDA was thrilled to have one of its certified dog handlers make the organization's first live rescue. In fact, this was the first live find by an avalanche rescue dog in Canada. To celebrate, the CARDA officers planned to take Keno for a steak dinner at the best restaurant in town, but the place didn't allow dogs. Instead, that night they brought over a ten-ounce sirloin steak. I cooked it rare for Keno, the way he liked it, and gave my brave and intelligent dog his well-deserved reward.
Excerpted from Angel Dogs with a Mission by Allen Anderson, Linda Anderson. Copyright © 2008 Allen and Linda Anderson. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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