Water Rescue Training | July 2020

This past week, a few C-RAD teams had the opportunity to participate in water rescue training with Summit County Search and Rescue Group. Water training involves the same scenting techniques used in avalanche search and rescue, but the dog must remain in the boat, presenting a new learning curve for dogs and handlers.

The end goal is the same: to find submerged victims. Instructor Jake Hutchinson sums up the training by saying, "At the end of the day, human scent is the same regardless of the medium. It's just exposing the dogs to the different nuances of each and learning to read them." Ultimately, some dog teams will become certified in water search and rescue, and for other teams, it's an excellent way to keep them thinking and using their noses.

Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post about the strong relationship between C-RAD and Summit County Rescue Group, and why it's an essential collaboration. 

Puppy Training During a Pandemic

Avalanche puppies wrestling
Charger (left) and Neve (right) wrestle at Copper Mountain

When C-RAD dog handlers Janie Merickel and Nick Slaton each brought puppies home in February, they had no idea they'd be training Charger and Neve under stay-at-home restrictions. What they discovered is that quarantine provides a valuable opportunity for bonding and training time, especially with the mountains in their backyards. At a little over four months old, these avalanche dogs are learning fundamentals of bonding, socialization and engagement.

"Overall, it’s been fantastic," Merickel said. "There are some things I wish we could do more of, like spend time with strangers [for socialization], or work on distracted obedience; things like having her sit at the entrance of the grocery store as people go in and out...distracted obedience is something we’ll have to simply pay more attention to in the upcoming months."


Puppy with adult dog and handler
"Baloo, my validated dog, teaches Charger things, like how to stay out of the way of the skis,and what the commands mean, and she learns fast that way. It’s awesome."
Puppy in shopping cart
Environmental training at Lowe's: getting used to the sights and sounds of the outside world.
Two dogs snuggling
Baloo, Merickel's validated dog, and Charger learn each other's ways.


It's common as dog enthusiasts, and especially as working dog handlers, to feel unnecessary training pressure with their puppies, which is defeating. Instead, Merickel emphasizes observation and engagement with Charger's natural inclinations, and how she can tailor her training plan around the dog.

Slaton echoed similar sentiments. While it's an unusual time, he's grateful for the extra time with Neve. "Sure it would be great to be on snow, riding snowmobiles, skiing [at the ski area], and getting these pups accustomed to the lifestyle. We would normally be preoccupied with the daily grind but are now presented with a great opportunity to build trust and continue engagement training, which can be very important foundation work," he said.


Golden retriever puppy gazing at handler
Nick Slaton and Neve enjoying some serious bonding time.
Avalanche puppy digging in snow hole
Luckily, with plenty of snow to be found up high through spring, Neve gets plenty of training time.








Black lab with dog handler
Janie Merickel and Charger enjoying their stay-at-home time together.

Merickel said taying at home has actually allowed more time together as dog and handler, along with the entire family, strengthening the bond, trust and understanding that's key to success as search and rescue training progresses.

"I learn about [Charger] and accept her ways, and she adapts to me, the handler, the great provider of all things important. Whew, when I say it like that it really does sound like a lot of responsibility, but it is, and I view it that way. This puppy is a gift, and I will do whatever it takes to do the right things, to get the best training to become the best asset for our community," Merickel said.

Avalanche training instructor helps dog and handler

The Important Role of Avalanche Technicians

If you follow C-RAD, you've likely heard us talk about avalanche technicians. Sometimes, you'll hear us refer to them as "avy techs" or just "techs." While handlers and dogs are often the primary focus in media content and coverage, the avalanche technician role is equally necessary and valuable for successful search and rescue. Who are C-RAD techs and what does that role encompass?

Avalanche technicians are professionals in the industry, meaning they're already part of a search and rescue organization or ski patrol team, and have high-level training in snow science and avalanche safety. They have strong mountain rescue backgrounds, combined with backcountry experience.

The main focus for techs:

  • Site command
  • Site safety
  • Communication
  • Assisting the handler + dog team

Avalanche dog and handler on snowmobileAvalanche technician diggin in the snow during training Dog handler with dog on shoulders

In a mission scenario, avalanche technicians clear avalanche debris of beacon and RECCO signals, letting the handler and dog team focus on their search strategy. Techs are in constant communication with the dog handler, prepared to keep a big picture view of the mission and solve problems as they arise.

Other potential objectives:

  • Medical care
  • Navigation planning
  • Incoming resource planning
  • Rigging rope systems for evacuation

C-RAD has placed a lot of emphasis on the avalanche technician + handler + K9 model approach because we believe it's extremely effective. We want our teams to be prepared to be first on-scene, and be able to initiate a response before a larger search and rescue team arrives.

As we evolve and improve our avalanche technician training and standards, our goal is to become a leader in our approach. We see it as our duty to provide as many resources as possible for our techs to build upon their knowledge and help further the C-RAD mission. Thank you to all our avalanche technicians who dedicate their time and energy to this work!

2020 Winter Course | February 2-6

Last week, we hosted our 6th annual C-RAD Winter Course at Vail Mountain in Colorado. It was a whirlwind five days of classroom learning, dog obedience training, avalanche rescue scenarios and more. Over 30 dog teams from Colorado and surrounding states joined us, in addition to 13 avalanche technicians, plus instructors from the U.S. and Canada.

Ski patrollers at avalanche dog course with dog Row of participants with dogs at avalanche dog course Ski patrollers on chairlift with dogs

For the first time, we dedicated a full day to avalanche technician training. "Techs," as we call them, are integral to avalanche search and rescue. Stay tuned for an in-depth look at the technician role on the blog, coming soon!

Dog and handler doing training with avalanche probesAvalanche dog plus handler walking together in the snowAvalanche tech digging in snow during training

Thank you to everyone who joined us, especially those who traveled long distances to share their knowledge and insights with us. This training is invaluable for us to continue to further the C-RAD mission. See you next year!

Avalanche dog taking a break from digging in the snowAvalanche dog with goggles on a snowmobileGerman shepherd avalanche dog running through snow

C-RAD Instructor Profile | Jay Pugh

We couldn't do what we do without the knowledge and dedication of instructors like Jay. Raised in Jasper, a small town in the Canadian Rockies, Jay works in Calgary as part of the K9 division of the Canada Task Force. We asked him some questions about his history as a dog handler and instructor to find out what it's like to work with teams like C-RAD and to pursue a career in this specialized field.

Avalanche dog instructor leads students in an exercise
Jay Pugh: an enthusiastic and creative instructor. Photo: Dave Camara

How did you become involved with training search and rescue dogs? What's your motivation behind being an instructor?

In 1990 I started working with a Parks Canada Doghandler with my first dog, Cruise. He guided me into the Canadian Avalanche Dog Rescue Association which I joined in 1993. After getting a job as a firefighter in Calgary in 1996 I realized that I wasn't really viable as a responder to avalanches and I asked to become an instructor so that I could continue my involvement in a meaningful way. I was already an outdoor first aid instructor and was enjoying it. I’d like to add that I had the incredible good fortune to be mentored as an Instructor by Roy Fawcett who was the RCMP dog coordinator for British Columbia and the Head Instructor for CARDA. Exceptional dog trainer and even more so a human trainer.

What do you enjoy most about training and working with dogs and handlers?

The people. Seeing the dedication and the sheer effort to learning the handling skills and relating to the dog is humbling. The vast majority of the students I’ve worked with are doing this to help others so I see the best in people.

How did you become involved with C-RAD? What's your favorite part about teaching at the C-RAD courses?

On one of the last CARDA (Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog) courses I taught I met John Reller (dog handler at Arapahoe Basin and C-RAD instructor) and hit it off with him. I encouraged him to come to a course I was helping with in the Tetons, and after that course he invited me and Lane Crister to come to C-RAD. The energy at C-RAD is fantastic! The thirst for knowledge is tangible and the hospitality I’m shown is as good as it gets and I’m very grateful for it.

Also John has assembled a group of instructors that have a very different set of skills and background. We all get along extremely well because we are all dedicated to the student and respect the different ways and techniques each one of us has. It’s a privilege to work with that sort of knowledge and open minds.

What do you enjoy about training avalanche rescue dogs specifically? What are the challenges? What are the rewards?

The dogs don’t have an ego and the best search dogs are born for it so I get to see them do what they love. The challenges are finding out why this isn’t happening and getting the complex part (the human) to recognize what they have to do. The reward is watching the bond develop when said handler sees their dog performing as a result of what they’re doing. It’s harder to get people to see what they’re doing right sometimes.

How do you see C-RAD and programs like it continuing to evolve?

There will always be new ways and ideas so there will be some changes in the way dogs are trained. My hope is that the cooperation and mutual support that is so prevalent in C-RAD now is always part of the culture. I think it’s important to any organization to promote everyone taking responsibility for the group. Leadership roles are very difficult, and without open communication and support from the group it becomes a soul sucking task. Developing mentorship is important as well. There are handlers who are on their own and really benefit from the help of an experienced team that can teach. On the ski hills a new team performs better with the help and support of the older teams. Again, C-RAD is in a position where this is happening now and have the opportunity to make it culture. Where support and guidance is a given.

What's your favorite moment from your work with dogs and handlers over the years?

Many favourite moments and I’ll use a defining quote from a student I worked that sums up the privilege I’ve been given to teach search dog teams. “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done." At that time that person was the youngest Canadian to ever climb Mount Everest.

Mission Deployment: An Interview with Greg Dumas

Avalanche dog teams train for years to become validated by C-RAD, in hopes of one day being deployed and putting their skills to use in the field. We spoke with dog handler Greg Dumas about his deployment on his first mission in April, 2018. We wanted to know what the experience was like for him and his dog, Sasha.
1. Tell us a little about you and Sasha. How long have you been a dog team and how long have you been certified?
I have been a patroller at Arapahoe Basin for 8 years and affiliated with our dog program and CRAD for about 4-5 of those years, mainly since taking on my role as a dog handler with Sasha in 2015. Most avalanche rescue dogs take about 2-3 years to train and validate to the C-RAD standard, often training to their own in-house ski resort standards in the process. Sasha and I passed both our A-Level test at Arapahoe Basin and our C-RAD test in the same season of 2017-2018.
2. What's it like when you first get a call that you're being deployed? What was your emotional response? Did Sasha have a different reaction?
The day of our deployment I can be honest in saying that we were on high alert from the time we called in as an available team that morning. It was the first warm, bluebird day after a few day-long snow cycle with 30+ inches of new snow and decent wind transport. That's the perfect recipe for an avalanche accident, and we knew backcountry travelers would be getting out there. People like skiing and riding in fresh snow, and the warm, clear weather will often trump safety considerations in group decision making.
When we got the call for deployment, we were ready to go. I was up top with Sasha anyway, which was convenient, because our helicopter [landing zone] is just a few hundred yards from our summit patrol building. Keith Hiller, the avalanche technician who flew with us, was transported from the top of [Pallavicini Lift] via snowmobile and we were ready to go in 5-10 minutes, by the time the helicopter landed and unloaded their crew. We had our gear and skins ready up top and had everything we needed. It was exciting, in every sense of the word. This is what we train for, and while there is some nervousness and anxiousness, really this was a chance to do the job we train for all winter long.
Dogs are different than humans, in terms of how they react to situations, and working dogs are no exception. They are creatures of habit, so, for her, having done dozens of drills that season, having loaded and unloaded helicopters in her training, she was just going to work. She doesn't differentiate between training and the real thing. Dogs view all training as work; it's a game to them. She was psyched. Her crate is her safe place in our patrol building, so she knows that when she is taken out and leashed up, she's going to work. Regardless of whether it's a drill or the real thing, the dogs bring their best to the table every time.

3. Describe the process of being deployed, and tell us about your particular mission.
Our mission was initiated by a 9-1-1 call from one of the snowmobilers involved, the reporting party, who called in a snowmobile-triggered avalanche near Georgia Pass. In the case of this accident, the sizeable avalanche buried his companion, and, while they were both wearing transceivers, he was unable to locate a signal in the avalanche debris. Dispatch notified the Summit County Sheriff who initiated a call out to Summit County Search and Rescue and available ski area deployment teams. From the time we got our call, and got picked up by Flight for Life, at least 30-40 minutes had passed since the avalanche occurred, mainly because the reporting party had waited about 15-20 minutes to call after the slide. We arrived and landed on-scene after assessing the surrounding area and potential hazard to us as rescuers, deciding that it was in our best interest to land in the debris at the bottom of the slide.
We quickly learned that despite both snowmobilers wearing beacons, the buried victim was not transmitting - later we learned that he had not turned it on. So instead of being a beacon search, we would need to rely on Sasha and our RECCO device. After a quick interview with the reporting party, we went about searching the site from the bottom. We had a point last seen, and quickly found his snowmobile, so logic led us to believe he was somewhere between the two. That is where I started my search with Sasha.
(Photo by Dave Camara)
4. What was it like putting all your training to the test? How did you feel while you were in the field working with Sasha and the rest of the team?
Despite the tragedy of the accident, it was a great experience in putting all of our training to the test. And while a live recovery is the goal of our training, body recovery is also a valuable offering to the victim's family and friends, as well as to the rest of the search and rescue community involved. By working quickly and safely with limited resources on scene, we were able to keep dozens of potential rescuers from having to travel to the scene, which is always better. As far as the search itself, we had good information to go on, and things went well. We ended up having a second team on the way, so we had about 20 minutes with nobody else on scene but the reporting party, whom we put to work continuing his beacon search. Sasha and I worked our way up the lookers right of the path in the debris, the area between the point last seen and the snowmobile. Within about 20 minutes, Sasha alerted to a scent and began digging, just as she had trained. I pulled out my probe and on the second attempt I had a strike on a body.
Searching with Sasha was an adrenaline-filled experience. Everything went smoothly as far as searching the area we wanted to clear first, and, thankfully, our suspicions were correct and he was right about where expected.
Things also went well working with Flight for Life and, later, Breckenridge Ski Patrol, who deployed a second team to scene and helped with transporting the victim and managing the scene with our reporting party, as well as getting us all safely back to the trailhead.
5. You and Sasha received a commendation for your work. What did it feel like to be able to help someone and bring closure to a tragic situation?
It was really cool to be recognized by the Summit County Sheriff's Office. Those of us on deployment have a unique relationship in Summit County with our sheriff department and Flight for Life, as well as our local search and rescue group, which allows for the work that we do together to go as smoothly as it does.
Closure is very important with situations like this. I think having us there on scene was really important for the friend who survived, our reporting party, who was going through some heavy emotions. Also for the family of the victim.
8. Anything else you'd like to add about being deployed, the mission or about continuing to be a dog team?
Trying to focus on quality drills over quantity, training weekly is ideal, to keep us stoked for deployments and ready to go! We are also trying to train more at Arapahoe Basin with [avalanche technicians], so full scenario deployment drills, as realistic as we can.

What's it like to be a new dog handler?

C-RAD has some new faces this year, including new avalanche dog Tikka and her handler, Erich! Tikka is eight months old and just started work at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. We chatted with Erich about his first months as a dog handler.

1.Why did you want to be an avalanche dog handler?

I’ve always had a connection with dogs and it was never really a plan, but when I started ski patrolling, I saw an opportunity. It seemed like it would be an awesome thing to do to bring my two passions together.

2. How did you choose Tikka?

We talked to multiple breeders that we had past experience with, either through A-Basin or C-RAD and settled on one that had a litter with timing that worked for us. We visited the puppies at about six weeks old and evaluated them. We examined their curiosity, temperament, drive and a few other behaviors. Ultimately, We felt Tikka had the best chance for success in our program.

3. So far, what’s the most rewarding part of the job?

Watching Tikka grow from 9 weeks old to now and seeing how much she’s progressed and what she’s done; having the opportunity to mold and shape a puppy into a well-behaved dog and getting into the rescue training.

4. What about the most challenging part of the job? 

Trying not to make mistakes that will have lasting effects on Tikka's training. That, and feeling like I never have enough time to train with her as much as I'd like. But, I just keep reinforcing positive things and going with my instincts, and it usually works out.

5. Tikka just started work at A-Basin. Tell me about her first few days.

Her first few days have been filled with brand new experiences. Snowmaking guns, snowmobiles, snow cats, being around skis and skiing, and being in a new place up at Patrol Headquarters. She’s been adapting and getting used to her new workplace and everything that comes with it.

6. What’s your favorite part about working with C-RAD?

The camaraderie with the other handlers and the openness and willingness to help each other succeed. Also, having the opportunity to potentially save a life one day.