Explore the important role that avalanche dogs play in keeping the slopes safe for recreational winter sports at the Sunshine Village. Video by Nora Cruickshank and Hannah Willinger

The thick powder of snow that covers Sunshine Village entices skiers and snowboarders to shred down the mountain face every year. But winter sports, especially those that take place on mountain faces, come with their share of dangers.

As back-country skiing and other extreme sports increase in popularity, so do the risks.

Ski patrollers like Logan Bennett and Drew Gunton spend countless hours training their canines for situations many of us never want to experience.

Avalanche DogsFerra (left) and Gypsie (right) are avalanche dogs at Sunshine Village,  with their handlers. The two dogs have very different temperaments. Gypsie is especially rambunctious as she’s still undergoing training. Photo by Nora Cruickshank & Hannah Willinger

Ferra and Gypsie are avalanche dogs at Sunshine Village, and though the dogs share the same job, their personalities are vastly different.

Ferra, who has been certified, is calm and collected and rarely vocalizes until she is about to start working, says her handler, Bennett. While Gypsie, who is undergoing her training, is high strung and rarely settles down.

Gunton, Gypsie’s handler, says, “Oh she’s nuts. She’s crazy. Very, very high-drive dog. She loves to work, she loves to chase, she has a great prey drive … it’s very rare that she calms down.”

Training an avalanche dog can cost $15,000 so the selection process is crucial. Bennett says the most suitable breeds include Labradors and German shepherds, among others. They look for breeds that can herd, hunt, and search for a substantial period of time.

“If I’m throwing a ball, I want them to really want to chase that ball. But if the ball goes in grass or out of the way I really want that dog to be able to hunt for a long period of time to be able to bring that ball back.”

This line of work comes with risks for both the handler and his companion, which are inherent to the job. Before going into any situation the team makes sure there is no avalanche risk to ensure their dogs are safe.

However, there is no guarantee for those who go into these types of situations.

“What’s the cost of a dog and what’s the cost of a handler? If you ask any handler ‘would they willingly put their dog in danger?’ they will definitely, categorically say ‘no.’ But given the fact we put ourselves in dangerous situations and avalanche conditions to recover people, it’s inherent to the job,” says Bennett.

Acknowledging these sometimes-dangerous conditions, Bennett says, “We have to have the education to be in those situations.”

Those enjoying the fresh powder and thinking of taking advantage of backcountry routes are exposed to avalanche risk, a risk they may not prepared for.

Bennett says, “I wouldn’t say there is a specific demographic that we go for because we all must remember that we all can make mistakes. The professionals make mistakes, the people who are out there every day make mistakes.”

ncruickshank@cjournal.ca & hwillinger@cjournal.ca  

The editor responsible for this article is Jennifer Dorozio, jdorozio@cjournal.ca 

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