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Dogged preparation

There are two simultaneous conversations happening these days atop Whistler Mountain.

There are two simultaneous conversations happening these days atop Whistler Mountain.

One is about what life is going to look like there next winter during the 2010 Olympics, the other about the avalanches this winter that have killed 15 people across the province so far.

During the winter months, a group of wind-kissed mountain staff would often trade sarcastic barbs about the Games in between sombre recountings of avalanche situations until eventually came the question everyone was thinking.

“A recent avalanche incident made the international papers,” said Tim Boal, a retired RCMP officer.

“Can you imagine if the Olympics was on at the same time?”

Olympic events will be held both in Whistler, B.C., and on Cypress Mountain in North Vancouver.

Over twenty-five hundred athletes and officials, thousands of spectators and thousands more volunteers will be on or near those mountains during the 2010 Winter Olympics.

“There will be a lot of people here and we want this resource to be available,” said Boal, who is overseeing dog services for the Olympics.

“RCMP resources will be tied up with other things.”

Meet Bree, an apricot standard poodle.

She’s one of 18 dogs currently vying for a spot on the all-volunteer avalanche rescue team for the Games.

Though there are police dogs trained for avalanche rescue, most of the canine community will have their noses to the grindstone during the Games, keeping alert for a whiff of danger.

Finding a team of dogs that could work during the Games is how Boal ended up on the top of Whistler testing 14 dogs for their aptitude as search and rescue animals.

Bree is an unusual choice for a rescue dog in a world where hardy German shepherds and rugged retrievers are kings on the snow mound.

But during her beginner training, Bree put some of them to shame.

Her nose just skimmed the crystal snow as she furiously tried to pick up the scent, again and again, of something foreign to the mountain.

The sign she’d found it was her tail.

It changed from a tick-tock twitch to an alarmed waggle until she’d dug through a mound of snow to snap her teeth around the prize, a ratty old sweater.

Passing a series of tests like that will eventually allow Bree, and her handlers, to obtain certification from one of world’s most prestigious avalanche dog rescue associations — Canada’s.

The association, known as CARDA, is a B.C.-based volunteer group of elite ski patrollers that began 30 years ago to formalize the training program for avalanche rescue dogs.

CARDA’s program and reputation is the reason why the RCMP sought it out to provide the dogs for the Olympics.

Getting just basic certification with a dog takes as much as two years, but by the time patrollers reach the level where they can run their own search teams, they’re often on at least their second or third canine partner.

The annual certification courses mark the culmination of hours of training handlers also do on their own time.

Those picked for the team will have accommodation and meals paid for and will be on call in case of calamity at any of the three mountain area venues.

 
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