Canadian avalanche rescue dog handler and assistant ski patrol director, Megan Kelly, and her German shepherd Mogul. Kimberley Vlasic/The Free Press

Avalanche rescue dogs save lives in Fernie

Mogul is one of three dogs working full-time at Fernie Alpine Resort; owner shares training journey

Finding someone buried in an avalanche is like looking for a needle in a haystack. That’s where Mogul comes in.

The four-year-old German shepherd is one of three Canadian avalanche rescue dogs working full-time at Fernie Alpine Resort (FAR).

Mogul’s owner and handler, Megan Kelly, bought him from an Ontario breeder, flying him back to the Elk Valley to train him from a pup to search for skiers and snowboarders caught in slides.

“We started in the summer in Hosmer just doing little runaways, where I would run about five metres away from him and hide behind a bush, and then I would play tug of war with a tiny piece of cloth,” she said.

“Then that game just got harder and harder, and we started switching people he was looking for. We were doing two things – we were teaching him to find human scent and we were teaching him how to play tug of war as a reward when you find human scent.”

After months of training, Kelly and Mogul became a certified Canadian avalanche rescue dog team just before his second birthday. She revealed the difference a dog can make.

“If there were to be an inbounds avalanche, most people at the resort aren’t carrying a transceiver,” said Kelly.

“They might have Recco (an electronic search device), so we could use our Recco machine but if they don’t we’re just going to have to look for them using a probe, and that’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.

“A dog can search a large avalanche quicker than probers can and they’re looking for that human scent under the snow. They’re able to clear an area, so say we have an avalanche but no one’s in it we need to know for sure.

“The dog is able to look and if they don’t do any digging and we don’t see a dog indicate for human scent then we would be able to say that area’s clear of people.”

Kelly and Mogul can also be called upon to assist with backcountry rescues, as was the case last year. She said in those situations, a dog can help provide closure for families.

“In the backcountry it’s less likely a dog will find someone alive just due to the amount of time it takes to start a backcountry avalanche rescue,” she said.

“You have to call 9-1-1, they call Search and Rescue then the dog person has to get to the helicopter, so best case scenario would be 20 minutes to an hour. People have survived that long in avalanches but it’s not the best chance of survival.”

For Kelly, having a dog that she can take to work is a dream come true.

She admits he is “momma’s boy” and sleeps in her bed when her husband is away.

“He trusts me, he rides the chairlift with me and he goes in helicopters, and he dangles under helicopters and rappels off the chairlift,” she said.

“It’s pretty cool to have that bond and I think the fact that I train him with positive training methods allows me to make training with him fun. I think he enjoys it and I definitely enjoy it.”

Mogul got to show off his obedience training and tug of war skills during Fernie Ski Patrol Day, hosted by resort sponsor Helly Hansen at FAR on Saturday, January 26.

The event featured avalanche beacon treasure hunts and fake dynamite tosses for a chance to win prizes, and aimed to raise awareness of snow safety.

Kelly said there is a way resort guests can make ski patrol’s job easier.

“We never want to have to rescue people in avalanches, so just a reminder, when we have avalanche closures you need to respect them and respect their signage because it means those conditions are dangerous or we’re using explosives control beyond that,” she said.

“Remember, all permanent closures, such as Hell’s Gate and the Lizard Headwall, are closures, they’re not to be skied.”

 

Mogul loves playing tug of war. Kimberley Vlasic/The Free Press

Skier Trisha Gain plays with Mogul on Fernie Ski Patrol Day. Kimberley Vlasic/The Free Press

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