Meet Banjo, the Avalanche Rescue Dog

by - Thursday, November 09, 2017

Winter storms and the ski season will be here soon, so say hello now to one of your furry heroes-in-waiting, Banjo.

At Sundance, we know and love Banjo—a seven-year-old Labrador retriever—from several of our holiday photo shoots (including the cover of our most recent Men's Almanac). But Banjo’s most important work is in avalanche search-and-rescue at one of our nearby Utah ski areas. With backcountry skiing surging in popularity, ski areas and organizations such as Wasatch Backcountry Rescue (WBR) employ dogs as one of their strategies to help locate buried victims should disaster strike.

Banjo’s human buddy and trainer is Jonathan, an avalanche forecaster for the ski area’s ski patrol. He answers our questions about Banjo and his important job here:

Sundance: What makes a good search dog?
Jonathan: I picked up Banjo from a breeder in Minnesota when he was seven weeks old. That is the age we typically will choose a puppy. We use what is known as the Volhard Puppy Aptitude Test to look for certain characteristics that make a good search dog. We want fairly outgoing dogs that exhibit strong drive. Sometimes traits that might make a good search dog don't always make for an easy family dog. These high-drive labs can be a handful!

S: How do you start the training?
J: It begins at the ski area that first winter. We get the pup used to riding chairlifts, snowmobiles, and being carried while traveling on skis, perhaps even getting introduced to riding in a helicopter. Search training begins either that season or the next. The motivating reward for searching is "tug." Simply playing tug-of-war with a piece of rope or webbing becomes these dogs’ favorite thing. Eventually, we transition from playing tug all the time for fun to playing tug only when the dog finds a human scent beneath the snow.

S: What happens next?
J: During Banjo's second winter, we began burying old, scented pieces of clothing as well as people in snow caves beneath the snow surface. He caught on quickly and searching soon became his favorite game. We traveled to Whistler in British Columbia to train with the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association and upon returning to Utah, he and I tested and passed the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue level A certification. This involved finding up to 3 possible buried victims in a mock avalanche-debris area of 100 meters x 100 meters in less than 20 minutes. Amazingly, if wind conditions are favorable, a trained dog can often locate a buried victim in as little as one minute or less! By passing this test, Banjo and I can participate in searches outside the ski area boundary.

S: Has Banjo worked in real emergencies?
J: Yes, but be aware that avalanches within the ski area that involve customers are very rare. This is due to our efforts at mitigating the hazard prior to opening our slopes. Now there is still a chance that an avalanche could occur and bury a customer, which is why we have our dogs on hand, but most searches are backcountry scenarios. Last season, Banjo searched two avalanches, both occurring within the same storm.

S: What were the outcomes?
J: Here the dogs provided a very important function of quickly telling us that most likely no one was involved. In 20 minutes, two dogs can do the work of 60 or more people whose only means of finding a victim is to put probe poles into the snow—a time-consuming process. For us, these “negative indication searches” have been the biggest success of our program.

S: Do labs make the best rescue dogs?
J: In the U.S., you will find labs as the predominant breed of search dog. They are fairly easy to train, have a high search drive and are friendly to customers. The current trend is to use smaller labs that are easier to carry while skiing. Shepherds, goldens, healers and pointers among others have also proven to be great search dogs.

S: What happens in the off season?
J: After a hot summer of looking for tennis balls and stopping in the ski area’s main office for treats, Banjo is ready for winter. Already he's rolled happily in the first snowfalls of the season. Pretty soon we'll do some search training in the snow and even though it has been since last April since his last on-snow training, the second I tell him to "search" he's a dog with a one-track mind.

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