A typical dogs nose is about 100 times more sensitive to smells than a human nose, and can pick out faint scents even when overwhelmed by hundreds of other competing smells.
Their sense of hearing is also between two and five times more sensitive than a humans, picking up fainter sounds and higher-pitched tones.
Those highly developed senses, given the proper training, are used to sniff out drugs and explosives at airports and rescue people and find bodies after natural disasters. In the mountains, dogs can speed up rescue efforts in the event that someone is lost or buried in the backcountry.
A few years ago a dog was instrumental in the rescue of a skier in Fernie when a slide occurred with a dog team in the area. It was the first time in Canada a dog had been used to locate a live avalanche victim, but if the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association has anything to say about it, it wont be the last.
There are about 50 dogs in Canada that have been certified by the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association, including 15 in the Whistler region. Every year those dogs, which are trained to be avalanche dogs for the first two years of their lives, have to be re-certified by the RCMP.
This year the certification course, as well as various training courses, will be taking place on Whistler Mountain from Jan. 8 to 13. Teams from Canada, the U.S. and possibly Germany will be attending. Members of the public will be welcome to watch, but are asked to keep their distance so they dont disturb the dogs and handlers while theyre in training or taking their tests.
A fundraiser and silent auction for CARDA is planned for Jan. 13 at Moe Joes, and raffle tickets will be sold for a larger draw that will take place in March.
According to Leslie Garbutt, a certified avalanche rescue dog owner, and one of the organizers of the training week and fundraiser, CARDA hopes to raise $37,000 between now and March. That money could make a difference in how quickly dog teams can respond to avalanches and search for lost skiers and snowboarders.
"All of the money will go to training, expenses, equipment costs," said Garbutt. "Right now we dont have uniforms or anything, were still using old pagers and things. Our communication could really be improved the faster we can get out there, the better the chances for survival."
With backcountry users using better gear, including devices that let them breathe under the snow without suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, people can last for an hour or more under the snow.