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.
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.