Avalanche Dog Noses: Your Best Chance of Survival

Leif a black, brown and white avalanche rescue dog wearing a dog jacket with blue rescue ropes connected to it as he lowers his face sniffing and walking forward on a snowy landscape

Up in the mountains, avalanches are part of the territory. If you’re lucky, you might only see or hear one. But on the off chance you get caught, there’s little even the most experienced can do to escape. Bright gear, and a beacon, shovel and probe are key to survival.

Education, awareness, and self-preparation goes a long way to mitigating the risk when venturing into the mountains and avalanche-prone areas as well. Avalanche education courses such as AIARE Avalanche Awareness, Basic Avalanche Skills Course (BASC) for Snowmobilers, and an Avalanche Level 1 Course are the first steps to learning more.

That said, accidents do happen, and it’s impossible to completely mitigate the risk in the alpine, backcountry wilderness terrain we love.

Provided you haven’t suffered trauma from impact, the chances of surviving an avalanche are roughly 90%, if you’re found within the first 15 minutes. After half an hour, these chances drop to 30%, and after 2 hours, your chance of survival is cut by more than half again, to just 10%. During an avalanche rescue, speed is critical. When disaster strikes, nothing beats four furry legs and a wet nose. Trained since puppies, avalanche rescue dogs (an ‘avy’ dog) have unmatched talents.

a aerial shot of a skier in the middle of two avalanches coming down the mountain and nearly coming together trapping them

SEARCH: Scent cones and avalanche rescue dog noses

Whereas a trained avalanche dog can search 2.5 acres in approximately 30 minutes, it would take 20 humans with beacons and probes to cover a similar-sized area in the same timeframe. With up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to just 6 million in the average human, a dog’s sense of smell can pinpoint a victim buried under the snow in a matter of minutes.

If you are still conscious, you will give off a strong odor that rises through the porous snow. This scent – a mixture of sweat, dead skin, bacteria, and soap – is most concentrated nearby its source – you, in other words. The wetness of a dog’s nose absorbs the scent. Each nostril works independently, helping to determine which direction the scent is coming from.

A trained dog will be able to track what’s referred to as “bright” (strong) and “dim” (weak) smells in the air. As the scent gets brighter and brighter, the dog knows they are on the right trail.

On a still day, the scent will spread in a wide pattern. On a windy day, that cone becomes narrower, putting the dog’s ability to the test. Zig-zagging up the slope, the dog will continue to sniff the air, occasionally going off the avalanche debris field to detect the edge of the scent cone. Once the rescue dog detects your location under the snow, it will begin to scratch and bark to alert the rescuers.

“We got a STRIKE,” you’ll hear, once it’s determined the dog has found a victim.

At this point, the rescuers will take over with the probe to determine if the strike is accurate, before they begin to dig. In a scenario with multiple victims, the handler and dog will continue to locate all additional victims buried in the snow, as the rest of the team begins to dig.

Leif a black, brown and white avalanche rescue dog wearing a dog jacket with blue rescue ropes connected to it as he digs into a snowy hill attempting to rescue someone
Leif a black, brown and white avalanche rescue dog wearing a dog jacket with blue rescue ropes connected to it holding a toy in his mouth as he pulled a man to rescue out of the snow with his trainer sitting in the snow behind him

What makes a good avalanche dog?

A strong hunting or herding drive and an ability to grasp obedience commands and hand signals are key qualities for avalanche rescue dogs. This makes breeds like Labradors, German shepherds, retrievers, and border collies the most common candidates. It’s also important that the dogs be non-aggressive towards humans and other dogs, as they’ll typically be working within resort boundaries, often around other avy rescue dogs.

Avy dog candidates start their training as puppies around 6 to 12 months, under the guidance of their handler (typically a ski patroller, or search and rescue personnel). This training takes two full years and continues throughout their career of roughly 8 to 10 years.

While these pups draw a lot of attention from resort goers, it’s important to remember they’re working dogs. Just like any other member of the ski patrol, they’re there to perform a job. At your local mountain, you’ll likely see them practicing drills, plowing down the snowy slopes, on the back of ski patrollers, and riding the lifts to get from location to location around the resort, always ready to spring into action in a real rescue scenario.

a close up of Leif, a black, brown and white avalanche rescue dog, wearing an olive green dog jacket looking up at something