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Avalanche dogs, handlers train for the worst

It was King's first day of avalanche school.

The frisky golden retriever gnawed on his leash as his handler,
Sean Macedonio, gently pushed the pup's rump to the ground and
commanded him to sit.

King obeyed, shooting his boss a forlorn look. Seconds later he
sprang to his feet again, his tail wagging.

Some of King's classmates — many of them black Labradors and German
shepherds — were more attentive. They barely flinched as they waited for their handler's verbal command or hand gesture to send them
leaping into action.

About 30 teams of avalanche rescue dogs and handlers from around
the West converged on Grizzly Gulch, in Little Cottonwood Canyon in
Utah, last week for avalanche-victim search drills, helicopter
training and classroom sessions.

Hosted by Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, the four-day, biennial
seminar includes instructors and handlers from nine states and Canada,
said president Dean Cardinale.

It is a chance for teams to exchange ideas, brush up techniques and
log time on the snow, preparing for the real rescues.

A dog's good temperament, strong work ethic and keen sense of smell
make it an excellent rescue worker, said Bruce Remington, Alta Ski
Resort's dog coordinator. A dog can smell "one grain of sand in a
dump truck of sand," he said.

Macedonio, a member of the Mammoth Mountain ski patrol in
California, hopes the butterscotch-colored King will be the first of
five or six avalanche rescue dogs to work at the resort and save
lives.

Just 4 months old, King already spends every day at Mammoth
Mountain riding chairlifts, snowmobiles and frolicking with guests — the prelude to his formal training.

In an Alta Ski Resort parking lot, King and Macedonio watched as a
University of Utah AirMed helicopter fired up its engine about 20 feet
away. As its rotors gained speed, churning up a plume of dust, a blast
of cold air sent King's ears back.

Macedonio knelt down and held the pup close. Sometimes just a
handler's body heat can calm a canine companion.

Handlers learned how to properly load their rescue dogs and
equipment into the copter, an important drill that ensures rescue
operations don't go awry before they begin.

One crew chief's helmet split open when it was hit by a rotor, a
Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association instructor told the group.
The blade, which moves so fast it's virtually invisible, came within
inches of the man's skull.

As one group took turns boarding the helicopter, another group
formed a circle on the other side of the parking lot, practicing
commands.

"Left-about turn," an instructor yelled, as the handlers moved
with their dogs in army-like formation. "Left turn and stop."

The dogs and their handlers' skills were put to the test when the
helicopter ferried them from the Alta parking lot to a mock avalanche
site high in the Wasatch Mountains. After jumping out of the copter,
handlers unleashed their dogs to pick up scents and find buried
volunteers.

The dogs zigzagged across the terrain, periodically stopping to
sniff and dig. They worked fast and frantically, excited to find the
buried victim. Once they picked up the person's scent, they began
digging, their paws churning the snow, until their handlers finished
the rest of the dig with a shovel.

"You want to go to work?" Cullen Lyle, a Copper Mountain ski
patrolman, asks his dog, Eddy. "You want to go to work? Let's go find
them!"

Eddy, a chocolate-colored Labrador, leaps into action. She picks up
the scent and starts digging.

"Get in there," Lyle said. "What's in there?"

Lyle talks to Eddy as her head disappears below the surface.

"Speak!" Lyle calls. Eddy barks. "Speak!" he calls again.

Eddy answers.

After she finds the victim, Lyle rewards her with a game of tug of
war. "Good girl," he coos.

Scripps Howard News Service