Matt Gunn of Albert Town is the instigator of Aspiring Avalanche Dogs, the team of dogs and handler stalwarts who are on standby throughout the winter at Treble Cone (TC). Their job is to rescue avalanche victims from an otherwise snowy demise.
Gunn has been in the business of training dogs for avalanche rescue for the past 20 years. It has been his passion. For him, it’s the dogs who are the heroes- and this article is a tribute to the dogs that he, and his handler team, have interacted with over this time.
So tell us how you became interested in training dogs for avalanche search and rescue?
It started for me when I witnessed an avalanche at Ohau in 1991 involving three people. One was killed.
It was a "closed field" day, and there was a list of unfortunate events that led to this fatality. That experience certainly played a significant part in my journey to becoming an avalanche dog handler.
A few years later, in 1995, I was looking after a friend's dog, and I started doing some "hide and seek" with Wizzid. I was amazed at how quickly he picked it up. When I gave Wizzid back to my friend, I said when he bred from him, count me in.
So about four years later I got a call saying that Wizzid had a mate and I had first pick of the litter.
There was also an avalanche out the back of TC where I was now working as a patroller, and after that, the field manager said: "Why don't we have an avalanche dog here at TC?"
As it turned out a week prior, I found out I had a pup coming in my direction, so I was able to tell him this was possible
In 2000 we started training Blizzid and TC had its first full-time avalanche dog. And so the evolution of avalanche dogs started properly in 2000.
And although we have just had our ten year birthday, I've been chipping away at this for 20 years.
How did things develop after that?
Very quickly, I realised we needed more than one dog if we were to have succession on the hill in periods of hazard. So the call went out to ski patrol, and Brendon Kearns stepped up.
Over the years, I have been giving proposals to TC to encourage them to help me set up NZ's first professional avalanche dog programme. After years of trying and failing to get this across the line, it didn't happen because TC didn't have any time or money to invest in this. They were keen to have the dogs up there, but ski fields are tight.
And the birth of Aspiring Avalanche Dogs?
Aspiring Avalanche Dogs was born out of frustration. I'd been putting so much work in, and I wanted TC to step up and help create something that would exist whether I was there or not. That's still my goal. I'm hoping with the new owners (of TC and Cardrona) there might be an opportunity for this in the future.
It got to the point where I went about getting a committee of people together to form Aspiring Avalanche Dogs. This was 2010.
So what is the purpose of Aspiring Avalanche Dogs?
Our sole purpose is to ensure succession – to bring new dogs and handlers on board, and ensure there are teams of avalanche dog teams based out of TC. That is the primary reason I set up Aspiring Avalanche Dogs.
Id love to set something up and be able to step away and know that it will keep going and will still have a succession of dogs into the future.
So what about the handlers?
We are all volunteer members of LandSar which provides our certification with support from the police. And skiers and mountain people. With anyone who is involved with LandSar, it is just good luck that there are any volunteers. LandSar has no succession plan.
How do you train the dogs?
It's simple providing you have the right type of dog. A dog with drive that comes from appropriate working lines. It's just a game of hide and seek.
We create a dog's drive for a particular toy (the "search toy"). Right from eight weeks old, we can start getting the dog bonded strongly with this toy; then we start playing hide and seek.
Progressively the game gets harder until we pair the search toy with human scent- we start using articles of clothing. Then we take the hide and seek game to a point where the dog believes that it's toy is under the snow, and to find the toy, it has to find the person.
There are lots of steps and work, but fundamentally they are doing it for the love of their toy.
It takes about two years to train a dog, from getting the pup at eight weeks old to the point where they are useful. The dog needs maturity to have the systems proofed and to be reliable.
And what dogs are best?
We have a variety of dogs. I personally like collies, but we have black labs and a black-lab-springer-spaniel cross—anything from those work lines. Collies are not so common in NZ but are used a lot overseas.
With collies, it is their work ethic and their drive to please. And they are just so trainable, The chances of you getting a dog with the high drive are better if you have a dog that's genetic predisposition is one of a high drive to please.
We have a fantastic line of black labs in NZ that are very high drive, so with Aspiring Avalanche Dogs, we have a number that have come from this particular kennel. It comes down to drive testing the parents.
We are always prepared to let a dog go, even if we have spent two years on it if it doesn't have the goods. But by going with a known breeding line, your strike rate is increased.
So are the dogs up at the ski field full time?
We aim to have dogs on the hill every day of the week. That is part of why we are trying to maintain four teams. Currently, we are looking for another handler, but we are only interested in TC based avalanche professionals who have the appropriate skill set.
And what about call-outs?
Call out's average about once a year. Sometimes we are put on standby by the police. But we can also be deployed by the TC ski patrol. So there are two different types of deployment- there is the 111 call to the police, but when there is a small isolated event on the ski area with a low probability that someone is buried, two dogs are the perfect scenario. We can put one dog over the debris and the second dog over to confirm.
We deal with backcountry accidents as well. There is a golden half-hour window if someone is buried and if we can be on the hill equipped and ready to go, we stand a really good chance of finding someone alive. Beyond 30 minutes and the survival rate drops dramatically.
So how do the dogs get around the ski area?
Dogs ride the chair and on the back of the skiddoo, and we can ski with them. We don't let the dogs run around the hill that much- it's too risky and too hard on them. We have a custom made dog-travel toboggan we tow behind the skiddoo that we raised $20,000 for.
We have raised thousands of dollars over the years. We have great support from our sponsors and the community.
And if someone wanted to join the team?
At the moment, Aspiring Avalanche Dogs has four dogs but only three handlers. They need another handler.
So if you are a snowsports professional, can look after yourself in the mountains and have the requisite avalanche credentials, maybe this is you?
View edition 984 of the Wānaka Sun here.