Have you ever wondered how a dog might find someone buried in the snow? What does the scent of a person do when it is buried in a snowbank or avalanche. Does scent freeze? The dogs that are trained for avalanche work are quite specialized. They need to know what an avalanche search looks like, they need to understand the sights of people walking the fall. They need to be able to ride on sleds to get to a scene as quickly as possible, they need not to be afraid of all of the diesel generators running the lights and the snow cats and other loud noises that are associated with an avalanche search.
On top of all that, scent moves differently in the cold. Not only are the rafts of bacteria that scent clings to less active in the cold but the snow acts like a sponge and soaks the scent up. The frozen water attracts the scent and binds it in the snow so less escapes to the surrounding air and is available to the dog’s nose. While there is wind in the winter to move scent around, the snowpack also will draw the scent down into it and the sun, when it comes out, is less effective at creating lifting currents that enable the scent to move well in the winter.
So, with all that in mind we had a training yesterday where we buried folks in the snow. Snow burial of course is a tricky thing. The person needs to be amenable to being buried and the burial has to be done correctly so that there is sufficient air for the subject to breath. Then they need to be protected from the wet so that they are not cold after repeated buryings. Finally, the subject needs to have a radio and keep in contact with the outside world while the dogs are locating them under the snow.
When burying a person they need to be in a seated position, usually with their head down and their elbows on knees. This creates a strong support structure to hold back the snow and a good air pocket for the subject to be able to breathe well. Cover the subject with a tarp to keep them dry (they are sitting on the same tarp) and start piling on the snow. When covered check to make sure they are OK and start the dog on the problem. Keep the buried time to under 5 minutes for safety.
Now comes the fun part, step off with the dog a ways so that she can watch but not participate, have someone wave her reward or toy a bit and call out so that she knows something is going on with her toy then bury the subject. Release the dog and move to the pile where the subject is buried, when the dog locates the subject under the snow, encourage digging but get right into the spot and praise the dog. Help her to dig until the subject is found, constantly praise and encourage the dog to help unearth the subject. Reward with the toy or other favorite reward when the subject is out.
Following these simple steps will allow a good introduction to snow burial for your pup. You may never have the opportunity to need this skill but in the Search and Rescue arena there may be an opportunity so it pays to be prepared.