Dogs of the Back­coun­try

At Jack­son Hole Re­sort, vet­eran ski pa­troller Rick “Frosty” Frost trains black Labrador retriev­ers, in­clud­ing his cur­rent girl, Cricket, to find buried avalanche vic­tims both in-bounds and in the side coun­try, out­side the ski area bound­ary.

SkiTrax - - Contents - By Jean Arthur

by Jean Arthur

Oli, the Welsh corgi, sur­vived a Jan­uary 2012 avalanche that sadly took the life of his owner, David Gail­lard, 44, who ski­toured with his wife, who sur­vived. They had skied near Cooke City, Mont., no­to­ri­ous for big snow and big­ger slides. Even though the cou­ple toured off slopes and near trees, a mas­sive slide buried Gail­lard and Oli.

Search and Res­cue found Gail­lard's body, but no sign of the dog. Four days later, Oli showed up at the Alpine Mo­tel where the cou­ple had stayed – at their mo­tel-room door – hun­gry, ragged but un­hurt. A cu­ri­ous skier later fol­lowed Oli's tracks, four miles into the back­coun­try, where Oli had dug out from un­der sev­eral feet of snow.

Oli's story is un­com­mon, but not unique. Ac­cord­ing to the Colorado Avalanche In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter, in 1966 a dog was buried in an avalanche at a Colorado ski area. Searchers or­ga­nized a probe line, yet found noth­ing. Three days later, the dog crawled out from be­neath a small tree that had ap­par­ently cre­ated an air pocket and walked back to the lodge.

And in 2004, a dog was found six days af­ter its owner was killed in a Colorado avalanche.

While dog-lovers take their ca­nines just about ev­ery­where, there is risk in­volved in both the health of ath­letic dogs and the safety of pets and own­ers. With the help of ex­perts and man­u­fac­tur­ers, Fido and Fifi will be per­haps a bit safer in the moun­tains when own­ers take a few pre­cau­tions.

“When we go out for a ski at -12°C (+10°F), no jack­ets and no booties on the dogs,” says Nancy Per­sons, school­teacher and cross-coun­try-ski coach in Unalak­leet, Alaska, where win­ter tem­per­a­tures av­er­age from -40° to -12°C. “Plus wind­chill!” adds Per­sons. “At zero, booties and jack­ets go on.”

Per­sons and her hus­band, Chris­tian, take their dogs, Labrador mixes Sadie and Tally, out with them to ski and to pre­pare the Unalak­leet cross­coun­try-ski trails that Chris­tian grooms for the com­mu­nity of fewer than 700 res­i­dents.

“The dogs wear Ruf­fwear Per­for­mance dog gear to keep them warm,” says Per­sons. “We use the Cloud Chaser soft­shell when we are out ski­ing, as the dogs get bet­ter leg move­ment, and they like the Ruf­fwear coats bet­ter than the other op­tions.”

Ruf­fwear, a lead­ing Amer­i­can pet-gear com­pany, has just launched its Cana­dian mar­ket­ing of win­ter dog jack­ets, boots and dog-pow­ered moun­tain-jor­ing gear. Five Ruf­fwear styles vary in thick­ness, with its new­est Pow­der Hound Hy­brid In­su­la­tion coat a high-loft, weather-re­sis­tant and trail-tested pullover of­fered in six dif­fer­ent sizes for ap­prox­i­mately $90 [US].

But just how cold is too cold for dog paws? Re­searchers in Japan's Ya­mazaki Gakuen Uni­ver­sity in Tokyo found that dogs such as Arc­tic fox and wolves have pads that stay warm, thanks to a boost in blood flow. Hiroyoshi Ni­nomiya, an ex­pert in an­i­mal anatomy, used a scan­ning elec­tron mi­cro­scope to study dog paws' blood ves­sels. He found that the tem­per­a­ture in the paws stay bal­anced be­cause warm blood cir­cu­lates through the pads' sur­faces to keep frost­bite away with­out the an­i­mal los­ing much body heat. How­ever, Ni­nomiya's “Func­tional Anatomy of the Foot­pad Vas­cu­la­ture of Dogs” study, pub­lished in Ve­teri­nary Der­ma­tol­ogy in 2011, ran tests in tem­per­a­tures above Unalak­leet's cold­est win­ter tem­per­a­tures, but didn't ex­plore ac­tive dogs over time in the frigid tem­per­a­tures.

Arc­tic mam­mals “main­tain their foot tem­per­a­ture just above the tis­sue freez­ing point (about -1°C) when the foot is im­mersed in a -35°C bath in a lab­o­ra­tory set­ting,” the re­searchers found. Some vet­eri­nar­i­ans sug­gest frost­bite can oc­cur just be­low freez­ing.

”Frost­bite or con­ge­la­tio is the dam­age that is caused to skin and other tis­sues due to ex­treme cold,” notes the VCA An­i­mal Hos­pi­tal's web­site. “When the en­vi­ron­men­tal tem­per­a­ture drops be­low 32°F (0°C), blood ves­sels close to the skin start to nar­row or con­strict. This con­stric­tion of the blood ves­sels helps to pre­serve core body tem­per­a­ture by di­vert­ing blood to­ward the core and away from the cooler parts of the body. In ex­treme cold or when the body is ex­posed to cold for long pe­ri­ods, this pro­tec­tive mech­a­nism can re­duce blood flow in some ar­eas of the body, es­pe­cially the ex­trem­i­ties.”

The Cana­dian Avalanche Res­cue Dog As­so­ci­a­tion (CARDA), based in Fernie, B.C., notes, “Just like hu­mans, when a dog's feet freeze, then they are that more sus­cep­ti­ble to freez­ing in the fu­ture. Han­dlers sim­ply have to un­der­stand the lim­i­ta­tions of the dogs. The colder it gets, the less ef­fec­tive the dog will be.”

“At -20° or more, Sadie does the dog paw dance and wants in­side,” says Per­sons.

“The 5:00 a.m. dog walk is al­ways bootie-free,” says Per­sons. “This is just the out the door go to the bath­room and get back in for break­fast if it is bit­ter cold. Both have the amaz­ing shrink­ing dogs' tails tucked in, and they com­press them­selves, from huge Sadie to small Sadie.”

She adds that booties vary in re­li­a­bil­ity and dog lik­a­bil­ity! “The tall Ruf­fwear booties they hate, but we do use them, but booties only stay on with tight­ened straps. Ruf­fwear makes a low bootie, and if our dogs didn't have dew claws, these would work great, but they some­times fall off. Re­ally our favourite booties are the plain, old dog-mush­ing booties – no frills, no in­su­la­tion, noth­ing. How­ever, we use the tall booties at -20°F.”

Moun­tain Ridge Rac­ing Alaskan Husky Sled Dogs and Equip­ment sells sim­ple booties for $2.50 to $3.50 [US] each in var­ied colours, in­clud­ing camo.

“The mush­ing booties are cheap,” says Per­sons. “We use them un­til they wear out.”

At Jack­son Hole Re­sort, vet­eran ski pa­troller Rick “Frosty” Frost trains black Labrador retriev­ers, in­clud­ing his cur­rent bitch, Cricket, to find buried avalanche vic­tims both in-bounds and in the side coun­try, out­side the ski-area bound­ary.

“We don't use booties on the dogs be­cause of the na­ture of the work they do,” says Frost, who notes there are five dogs be­long­ing to ski-pa­trol staff. “Booties im­pede their abil­ity to grip the snow and dig. Labradors are bred for cold weather with a dou­ble coat and a good fat layer.”

That said, dogs and hu­mans are sus­cep­ti­ble to frost­bite on ears, noses and tails. Frosty notes that he avoids in­ten­sive dog work when tem-

Han­dlers sim­ply have to un­der­stand the lim­i­ta­tions of the dogs. The colder it gets, the less ef­fec­tive the dog will be.

per­a­tures dip be­low -12°C (10°F), say­ing that “My cut­off is zero Fahren­heit [-17°C] un­less we are on a search, of course. The dogs wear vests that iden­tify them as part of the pa­trol as well, so we can evac­u­ate with a dog out of a chair­lift.”

Cur­rently, Jack­son pa­trollers own var­i­ous breeds of dogs for res­cue, in­clud­ing a shep­herd, flat-coat re­triever, golden re­triever and, soon, a bor­der col­lie.

Frost notes that some peo­ple can un­in­ten­tion­ally harm their dogs when ski­ing with them in the back­coun­try.

“The No. 1 thing I tell peo­ple is to not run their dogs down­hill – it's not good for their shoul­ders,” he says. “We'll carry our dogs on our shoul­ders if we have to ski down­hill fast – Cricket is 45 pounds. We can put a dog on a sled or we snow­plow slowly with the dog be­tween our legs to pre­vent injury.”

He adds that run­ning dogs down­hill “can take healthy years of a dog. Se­ri­ous is­sues oc­cur in deep snow or punchy snow. As dogs move for­ward, they lunge; their hind legs get hung up. The most com­mon injury is hy­per-ex­tended joints, al­though you can dam­age the sheath on the dog's spinal cord and tem­po­rar­ily par­a­lyze him. It can hap­pen up­hill run­ning, down­hill, in deep, punchy snow.”

And surgery to re­pair a dog's torn ACL costs $2,500 [US] or more – and sev­eral weeks in a cast.

Frost tells skiers to use cau­tion when ski­ing with dogs. “Be ex­tremely aware of your ski edges. Dogs have very close-to-the-sur­face nerves, lig­a­ments and blood ves­sels that would be eas­ily sev­ered by ski edges.”

“It kills me watch­ing peo­ple fly down a pass on their bikes or skis, run­ning their dogs and hav­ing no idea they are do­ing po­ten­tially se­ri­ous injury to their dogs,” he says.

At work, how­ever, the po­ten­tial haz­ard for res­cuers – hu­man and ca­nine – dur­ing avalanche res­cue mis­sions comes mainly from self-trig­gered avalanches. “We don't put dogs in dan­ger. We ad­dress the hang­ing snow haz­ard and don't put our dogs on slope where there is a hang haz­ard.”

Some dog own­ers look for pet Pieps such as Black Di­a­mond's Pieps T 600 dog col­lar ($19.95 [US]), a mini trans­mit­ter on a dog col­lar equipped with the in­te­grated car­ry­ing sys­tem for the PIEPS TX600 mini-trans­mit­ter. The mini-trans­mit­ter has mo­tion sen­sor for dogs and equip­ment that is trans­mit­ting out of the stan­dard EN300718 of the hu­man's trans­ceiver.

Ul­ti­mately, dog mush­ers, ski-jor­ers and Nordic skiers will say that ath­letes, whether hu­man or canid, need proper nu­tri­tion, ac­cess to fresh wa­ter and plenty of train­ing in safe ar­eas.

Man's best friend pro­vides ex­cel­lent help to find buried avalanche vic­tims, but, sim­i­lar to hu­mans, dogs are sus­cep­ti­ble to frost­bite on ears, noses and tails.

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