Whistler Blackcomb recently welcomed a new member to its team.
Roxy is tiny, fluffy and, arguably, one of the cutest new recruits — and currently she’s in training to become one of 8 avalanche rescue dogs on Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains. (Currently there are five valid dogs on Whistler and three on Blackcomb, but the goal is to have 12.) At 13 weeks, the Australian shepherd is just over the size of a football and can be spotted on the mountain with her owner, Whistler patroller Kevin Sibbald. The pair has plenty of training ahead.
“If you do your research and choose the breed and the right dog, hopefully you’re setting yourself up for success,” Sibbald said. “But the way the program works is there’s no guarantees. I could spend the whole winter with the dog and it might not work out — either my fault or the dog doesn’t have it.”
Still, he’s optimistic that Roxy will be a good fit and at the end of two years of training she’ll be certified through the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA). WB aims to have four dogs available at all time (and six dogs per mountain, total) for avalanche rescue. When Sibbald had to retire his dog Coho last year (she’s a chocolate lab who now gets to be a regular dog at home) it meant WB was short one pup. After some thought about the time, effort and commitment it takes to train a new avalanche puppy, Sibbald began the search that led him to Roxy’s breeder in Renfrew, Ont. at Ninebark Aussies. “I had to really think about it, but I couldn’t imagine not doing it,” he said. “The skills I’ve learned dog handling, and even the personal skills in mountain travel and being part of the rescue program, it’s pretty rewarding. The people (of CARDA) are a big part of it.”
The dogs are slowly and carefully trained to help find people who are buried in avalanches (or, more often, to confirm that no one has been buried). Roxy will start out this winter bonding with Sibbald and getting used to having so many people around, while also working on familiarization with snowmobiles and skis. She will continue with training in the summer and then attend her first winter course when she’s about a year old. After that she’ll be an official dog in training.
“That’s the beginning of search tactics,” Sibbald said. “Up until then it’s familiarization and training and bonding, simple commands. Then after that, we’ll have the rest of the winter to work on skills and hopefully it will be a big developmental year.”
After one more winter course, she’ll be fully certified.
Despite all the effort, the dogs are a valuable part of the WB team. “They’re super important,” Sibbald said. “They’re going to be used for people not wearing a beacon. They also have been used for tree well searches.”
For now, one of the toughest parts of the job is trying to deter skiers and snowboarders from petting the tiny pup. Like other working dogs, she can’t be played with while on duty. She has a vest similar to that of seeing eye dogs, but it’s still too big for her.
“She’s a little furball,” Sibbald said. “She’s pretty cute — it’s not what I was looking for (in an avalanche dog) but it turns out she’s a really cute dog. Everyone is all over her. She needs to bond with me and listen to me. I have to say, ‘no’ to public and staff interaction. That will be an ongoing problem.”
While individuals like Sibbald take on the commitment of training the dogs, WB helps by covering training costs, insurance and often securing a food sponsor.
So far, Roxy seems to be enjoying her work. “But she’s a puppy,” Sibbald said. “She just enjoys everything in general. The last couple of days weren’t the best (weather) — she was basically a drowned rat. We were doing different things in the rain and she was excited as ever.”
Note: This story was updated on Dec. 19.