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Avalanche dogs dig the working life

By Jed Boal | Posted - Jan. 14, 2011 at 6:15 p.m.

15 photos

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SNOWBIRD -- Rachel Moscarella and Hattie teamed up four years ago when the yellow Labrador retriever was only a pup.

"It's a pretty special relationship," said Moscarella, rubbing her dog behind the ears.

Hattie is a working dog who heads home with Moscarella at the end of the day. They work Taos Ski Valley and stay sharp for avalanche emergencies in the New Mexico backcountry.

One canine team can do the job of more than 150 people searching with probes in rock-hard avalanche debris. -WBR

"She has to have confidence me and believe in me so that I'm not going to put her in a bad situation on a rescue," says the ski patrol dog handler.

And that trust must run both ways.

"So that when she gives me her indication, I feel confident that's where I want to have a shovel team dig and actually recover," says Moscarella.

Avalanche rescue dogs from across the west showed up for special classes this week at Snowbird. The dogs and their handlers honed their skills for backcountry rescues.

With all of the heavy snowfall this year, avalanche danger has been considerable at different times across the west. The rescue teams that stand guard at every resort rely on their dogs when seconds count.

The dogs and their handlers train for life and death situations. But, to the dogs, it's all playtime.

"The whole training ends up to be a game for them," says Moscarella. "When they find something, they get their little toy."

Rescue Dog Testing
Rescue Dogs are selected from dog teams at the local ski resorts. Dog teams are tested in obedience each season and a search test every other season. Dog teams are tested at a different Ski Resort from their own and evaluated by WBR evaluators, who grade the handler and dog on many different disciplines.

28 teams from resorts across the west wrapped up a full week of training.

Moscarella and handlers from Aspen, Breckenridge, Mt. Bachelor, Alta and the Canyons put their dogs through rigorous paces. They ran agility drills through poles, over snow mounds and across slick surfaces. They sent the dogs to find buried objects and negotiated more complicated search and rescue scenarios.

Through it all, the tails were wagging and the dogs were engaged in the tasks.

Dean Cardinale, President of Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, is amazed by what he's seen avalanche rescue dogs do in the backcountry.

"Where somebody is buried in an avalanche, the dog's nose is very strong," says Cardinale. "They're very loyal. They're much more than a mascot at the ski resorts."

Wasatch Backcountry Rescue urges everyone to use good judgment in the backcountry to avoid avalanche danger. Travel with a partner, use the proper safety equipment and call the Utah Avalanche Center before you head out.

"Hopefully, they don't need our services," says Cardinale. "But, we're training, so that if they do, we'll be able to respond."

In the backcountry, conditions change rapidly, and handlers like Moscarella need to be ready with their dogs.

"We just want the dogs to be able to handle any situation they might encounter," she said.

Best friends and trusted colleagues.



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Jed Boal


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