Dog handler stays the distance

LandSAR volunteer Brent MacDonald, of Arrowtown, with his avalanche tracking dog, black Labrador...
LandSAR volunteer Brent MacDonald, of Arrowtown, with his avalanche tracking dog, black Labrador Ella (9). Photo by Tracey Roxburgh.
It has been 13 years since Arrowtown resident Brent MacDonald first decided to have a go at becoming a LandSAR avalanche dog handler - and he has not looked back.

Mr MacDonald, The Remarkables Ski Area maintenance manager, came from a farming background and when he started at the ski area, he met a colleague with an avalanche dog.

Soon after, he got a black Labrador puppy and began training it, but hip dysplasia set in when the dog was 4 years old.

Then came Ella, a now 9-year-old black Labrador, who first qualified as an operational avalanche dog when she was just over a year old, and has remained operational ever since.

"I put into her what I'd learned from the first dog. The first one was strictly avalanche [searching]. Ella is wilderness tracking and [operational] avalanche."

While wilderness tracking dogs search for tracks and air-scent dogs follow scent on the wind, avalanche dogs are searching for a "cone" of scent buried deep in the snow.

The training involves associating a toy with human scent, so when an avalanche occurs, the dog - thinking it is a game - tries to find the human.

And when it does, it gets its toy.

"After 18 minutes the chance of survival has diminished pretty rapidly.

"We'll define the search area and let the dog run over that area . . . until they can find where the human scent is.

"They'll dig and bark, at which point we'll [put out] an indicator [and it will be probed]."

Three avalanche dogs werebased at Treble Cone, two at Cardrona and Ella at The Remarkables, Mr MacDonald said.

However, he hoped in the not too distant future, The Remarkables would also have two operational avalanche dogs - with Ella's "sister" Honi (14 weeks) already showing promising signs.

"[At 14 weeks, Honi] is doing things other pups wouldn't be thinking of . . . . some dogs need to mature a little more."

Mr MacDonald said Labradors were ideal search and rescue dogs, primarily because of their happy, playful nature - where the reward of play was pivotal in their success.

"They're brilliant for the avalanche, because they're explosive and really focus on what they're doing . . . [Ella's] downfall is she works that damned hard . . . she wears herself out."

In Glenorchy, a former Czech Republic resident has also recently qualified as a LandSAR operational avalanche dog handler - the only woman in New Zealand to hold the qualification at the moment.

Vladka Slivova (34) has been living in New Zealand for seven years, but before that was involved with police obedience dog training in her home country.

A keen outdoors woman, becoming involved with LandSAR was a natural progression and her dog training background has seen her 3-year-old black Labrador Jacques, who weighs about 40kg, qualify as an operational avalanche dog for the first time.

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