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Yukon dogs to the rescue

Bodi lives to dig people half-alive out of snowbanks. And that's how we met, his canine teeth lunging at me and his bony front legs barrelling through a pile of snow I was buried beneath.

Bodi lives to dig people half-alive out of snowbanks.

And that’s how we met, his canine teeth lunging at me and his bony front legs barrelling through a pile of snow I was buried beneath.

Normally, I wouldn’t choose to be covered by a metre of hard, frozen-packed snow.

But this was a training exercise for Bodi, an avalanche rescue dog preparing to travel to the Olympics.

Friday afternoon I wiggled my way backwards into a snow cave built in dog handler Kirstie Simpson’s backyard.

Settling into the tiny hole I was unceremoniously thrown a chewed-up green sweater.

“Here, hold on tight to the sleeves. Bodi will pull you out by grabbing onto this end,” said Simpson pointing to the sweater’s ragged torso.

Then she piled snow over the small opening. Lots of it.

The sunlight streaming into the snow cave was gradually snuffed out and I found myself in a dark, cold, claustrophobic hole.

Before I had time to panic, Bodi’s paws burst through the piled-in entranceway and, suddenly, I had a 34-kilogram sable Shepard driving right into me.

It was hard to ignore his teeth, especially because he was going straight for the green sweater, which was near my face.

Bodi bit into the sweater and began to pull.

My body began to move up over the incline of snow leading out of the snow cave. He didn’t stop pulling until three quarters of my body was out in the open, my shoulder sockets burning from the pressure.

The extraction took less than 15 seconds.

Finding and digging out “avalanche victims” is something Bodi has done every day, in some form, since he was a puppy.

Monday, the four-year-old dog travelled to the Olympics with Simpson to provide avalanche support for the Callaghan Valley region where cross-country, biathlon and ski-jumping events are taking place.

Simpson and Bodi will be one of 25 dog teams providing support to the security units patrolling the backcountry areas of Whistler, Cypress Mountain and the Callaghan Valley.

Even when Bodi was just a few days old, Simpson knew he would become an avalanche-rescue dog.

When separated from his mother he could follow the scent of her milk and search her out faster than any of the other dogs in his litter.

At six-weeks-old he was already finding and digging up carrots hidden in the snow.

Food is a big reward for young dogs who are being trained for avalanche rescue, said Simpson.

“The dogs need to have a nice mix of prey drive but also be able to bond well with people,” she said.

Simpson got her first avalanche dog 20 years ago when she met a fellow in Whistler who gave her a retriever he had trained specifically for the job.

She was already an avid skier and mountaineer, two things essential for an avalanche-dog trainer.

In 1990 she became accredited through the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association, a title that only 35 Canadians currently hold.

Since then, she has trained five separate dogs and has been on call as an avalanche rescuer in the Yukon.

Her dogs have been called to avalanche sites several times, but never to retrieve someone who is alive.

Usually it’s to find a body.

Simpson is the only accredited avalanche-dog rescuer in the Yukon, and although she is always on call, most avalanches are too far away to allow a rescue.

“I’ve never been closer than an hour and a half away,” said Simpson, explaining the life expectancy of someone trapped under snow is less than 15 minutes.

But Simpson doesn’t take those statistics to heart. There’s only ever been one person in Canada who was successfully rescued from an avalanche by a dog.

So why, then, do these dogs keep getting trained for this type of work?

They’re still able to do the job much faster than any person could, said Simpson.

“A dog can search an area 20 times faster than a group of people.”

“The dogs go into four-wheel-drive.”

And when these dogs are stationed at a ski hill, like Bodi will be in Callaghan, successful rescues are more common.

Ten years ago, Whitehorse resident Stephan Poirier and his avalanche rescue dog Zack saved a young boy from freezing to death in the woods.

Poirier was working at the Big White ski hill in BC when he got a call from a ski patroller that a nine-year-old boy had gone missing while skiing.

Taking his German Shepard, Poirier started off on a trail where the boy had been last seen.

Eighteen minutes later, Zack came across the boy, shivering and wet, hidden behind a tree in a gully far off from any ski trail.

The hypothermic boy was reunited with his father and the next day, the story made front page of the Vancouver Province.

It was the highlight of Poirier’s career as an avalanche rescue dog handler.

But training and raising an avalanche rescue dog is not easy work. That’s why, when Zack passed away, Poirier never trained another dog.

The job cost him $4,000 a year in certification and special food, not to mention the amount of time he poured into working with the dog each day.

To train an avalanche rescue dog you essentially have to brainwash them, said Poirier.

They need to learn that “bacon and squirrels are boring” and that sniffing out scents in snowpack is more interesting, said Poirier.

“There’s zero tolerance for rescue dogs who are distracted by wildlife,” he said.

“If the dog is distracted by a squirrel, then you’re losing time because that dog is craving blood.”

The right dog is essential, Simpson agrees.

Most avalanche rescue dogs are natural retrievers, like German Shepherds, Labradors and border collies.

“It can’t be a dog with northern bloodlines,” she said.

Her own dog Bodi, and a second avalanche-rescue dog she is training, Ulu, are both sable shepherds.

They’re Iron Curtain dogs from the Czech Republic and hard workers, said Simpson.

She’s able to afford her dogs by holding avalanche rescue courses in the Yukon to offset their costs and has one of her dogs sponsored by Air North so that he travels for free.

All of her avalanche-rescue work is volunteer and on top of her full-time job as a biologist.

Although her dogs have never rescued anyone alive, she continues working with them, holding out hope that one day they will.

Contact Vivian Belik at