The Endless Pursuit of Awesomeness.

Dog Team

A dog is so much more than just a pet. The relationship between human and canine can be so much  deeper than tossing a ball at a park, or snuggling for a movie after work. A dog team shares an instinctive bond, a symbiotic necessity between human and beast. It stems from an ancient connection when wild men brought these howling wolves alongside them through their adaptation to civility. The first time a human connected with a snarling drooling and fervorous wolf must have been daunting, hairs raised on the necks of both species. But I think both saw the advantage to coalition in an unforgiving world. Since then, the very face of this species has been bred to suit our more modest needs, for companionship, or as another family member. But still programmed into the dogs mind is a drive to pursue, please, and protect.

I’ve been training both myself and my dog, Timber in an avalanche rescue profile in BC, Canada under the direction of the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association. Without question it has been the most rewarding and fun decision I’ve ever made in my career, and also- compounded by my full time job as a ski patroller at WhistlerBlackcomb, this has been the hardest I’ve ever worked. The commitment to training a full time dog team is a relentless, sometimes thankless, grueling test of patience planning and problem solving. Too many days have concluded skiing steep 6000′ lines with him wriggling on my shoulders, or after a week of acting like a circus clown to set the searching mood. Some days I simply drag my feet to his kennel after a busy day hauling wrecks, only to be met with the excitement of 50 pounds of fresh unused muscle excited to start his.

Timber’s life began on the cusp of terror. He was born in a reserve and at just 6 weeks old, left in a ditch zip tied to his brother in a frosty North Albertan autumn. This would have ended in a much shorter, sadder story had it not been for my friend Darcie, who picked him up and nursed him and his brother back to life. Weeks after I had gotten him, he was still grossly underweight but was eager for his second chance. It took a lot of convincing for WhistlerBlackcomb to hire me into the rescue dog program, and we train like our career depends on it. His beginning as a career rescue dog was and still is on a cusp of an extremely rewarding struggle, but regardless of the outcome of our upcoming RCMP validation exam1, Timber and I will always be a team. The following is a taste of what it’s like to be an Avalanche Rescue Dog Handler.

I’ll never forget showing up to our first CARDA assessment when he wasn’t even full grown yet. On a hot and dry day in Penticton, BC, a “Quarry”2 had run off with Timber’s favourite toy to hide in the sparse rolling forest of ponderosa and alpine fir, seemingly to never be seen again. This toy was special to Timber. I picked it up on the way to our first visit to ease our first meet. He and I played with it every day, and he snuggled with it like an infant would a teddy bear. We had staged the theft of his toy with a particular act of balanced intimidation and tease, and the Quarry bolted into the woods like a wounded animal carrying Timber’s favourite toy. Even I felt cheated. I had never seen the moves of a Quarry before either, but I’ll never forget looking into my dog’s eyes and watching them dilate, his inner wolf raging, and his determined stare unwavering at the last sight of this precious ragging3 toy. His determination far superseded mine as the force of his four claws ripping roots out of the ground, whipping his tiny body forwards clinching the leash around my waist, nearly toppling me. The moment I turned him loose he was a black bullet, his frame flailing into the woods like a cartoon rocket, tongue and ears barely hanging onto his face as he tore through the brush in search of the quarry. I struggled to keep up.

We were hooked.

Training a dog is a lifestyle, and there is no end point. Timber’s demeanor must adhere to a higher standard regardless of where we are or what time of day it is. It’s a life of calculation, and I must know the outcome of every situation before us. CARDA taught me about the CRAPP4 teaching principle: Consistency, Repetition, Association, Patience, and Persistence. Every interaction with Timber has been a combination of those elements, and every interaction has purpose – whether we’ve been practicing obedience, searching in snow or a field, travelling together, casually playing, or even my decision to shake it off and let him be a dog. Some or all of those elements are being employed to get my dog up to a professional standard. It’s a challenging and unique experience to be mentally and physically attached to a dog and constantly balancing the positives and negatives of each day. It is a bond matched by little else.

Over the past 2 years, Timber and I have learned each other’s movements, gestures, and expressions. Be it the urgency or playfulness in my tone, or his body language, the look on his face, or the rigidity in his stance. We can predict each other’s next move, and we have established an unbreakable trust. I can predict how he will react to something scary and new, and he can sense my encouragement in him to press on. It takes an exhausting amount of time and patience to be successful as a dog team, but participating in the growth of his confidence and stamina has helped build me as a man.

The greatest lesson I’ve ever learned from my dog is to attack in the face of hesitancy. Life is full of new, daunting and gruelling challenges, for example a new avalanche control route, or a thread the needle, pin it to win it mountain bike trail, or simply dealing with a bank manager or wrestling some rotten parts out of a car. This knee high drooling ball chaser taught me that the only option is to ruff up your haunches, to bear teeth  and seethe at the opportunity like a wolf, to stare down the neck of fear with an intense fire in your eyes. Twist your toes in the grit, stab at some traction, and spin like hell on wheels like it’s a target you cannot miss for fear of losing everything. Tunnel down on your prey if it means ripping muscle from your bone and stretching tendons from their joints. Pursue with conviction and force a regimen that there is no way back. You must tackle your goal at the knees, wrap your body around it at never let go. That success is yours and how dare it tease you, to dance freely and not submitted to your will between paws and jaws.

The result is extraordinary. A switched on dog team is art in motion, and watching them work is a combination of aggressive finesse and coordination, because after all, lives are at stake and each second that ticks by is another breath lost for someone reaching for air under a mountain of snow. The life of a service dog is the best way for a dog to live because his or her life orbits around having the most fun possible in the most amazing places possible. A high drive dog is built off of interactions that are guaranteed to end with affection for a job well done. It is a life of praise and progression to success, a purposeful life that must be enviable by those poster pets playing fetch. These are the dogs with the jobs that come home as sore as the rest of us, with a badge on their harness that they wear with just as much honour. The only thing that’s better than a bowl of hot food after a rough day is a high five from their handler– the completion to their team.

1 rcmp validation : After basic training courses are complete, a dog team faces a rigorous examination of search procedures and obedience graded by the RCMP in order to earn a badge as a true dog team.

2 quarry: A Person that fills the role as a subject buried in an avalanche. They either act like circus clowns and run and hide in the bush, or volunteer to get buried alive under snow in order to expose the dog to the reward of a find.

3 ragging toy: A tube of cloth used to simulate the joy of hunting and returning a kill to the wolfpack. The more the quarry can make the cloth react like meat and flesh tearing off the bone, the more exciting it is for the dog.

4 CRAPP The foundations of dog training be Consistent with your words and mannerisms, Repeat – countless times in the babiest of steps with an image of success in mind Associate the dog that movements, tones, and the environment can be an indicator of what’s to come, be Patient and hide the copious amount of frustration you endure – the dog knows you better than you can imagine, and Persist; push through the struggles and aim for a positive outcome… every time.

I would very much like to thank all of those that have helped Timber and I along the way, we could not have gotten this far without you, and specifically your patience. Wish us luck for our upcoming exams! :)

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