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Going to the dogs

Fundraisers, demonstrations highlight importance of CARDA dogs

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Right now it could take that long to get a dog team to the backcountry, but with better equipment and communication, Garbutt says that time could be reduced significantly. There are usually dogs on Whistler and Blackcomb to handle in-bounds avalanches, although Garbutt’s dog Nilla is currently the only CARDA qualified dog.

Nilla has been used to find people who went missing out of bounds, and to investigate slides that occurred overnight in different areas to ensure that nobody was trapped underneath. If someone was caught in a tree well, Nilla would also make the search easier.

"We get calls all the time," said Garbutt.

More technical uniforms are needed because searchers need to be prepared to endure the worst alpine weather and even to work overnight.

The dogs are also expensive to feed, train, and care for, and all of those expenses are currently covered by the dog handlers. Some expenses could be classified as business expenses under tax laws, but Garbutt has been hesitant to do so until she gets confirmation from Canada Customs and Revenue Agency.

The training is also extensive, with dogs and their handlers attending three courses in the first two years, as well as the certifications.

"It’s really exhausting, I couldn’t imagine doing this and having kids. It takes a lot of time and money, but it can be rewarding as well," said Garbutt.

Garbutt says she’s fascinated by the dogs, and how acute their sense of smell and hearing really is. Last week she said she threw a T-shirt into a tree instead of burying it underground, trying to fool Nilla, who has been trained to search on the ground.

"Sure enough she went right to the tree, sat there and barked. She couldn’t see the T-shirt where it was, but she knew it was there. It blows my mind, how they do that. That’s part of the reason I’m doing this, I just find the whole thing so fascinating," she said.

To be certified, the dog has to pass an obedience test, the dog handler has to pass a skiing test and hold various certifications, and the team has to locate three buried targets in a given area within 45 minutes.

CARDA holds certification events in Whistler and other communities on a regular basis, but dog teams and handlers can also take the certification test through the RCMP.

"I’ve found it’s best to come to the CARDA course because you learn so much, but because people are spread out all over B.C. and Alberta and elsewhere and you have to be validated every year, it’s hard to get to the course," explained Garbutt.

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