New recruit joins Avalanche Dogs

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He may be cute and fluffy, but 9-week-old Wizzid could one day save someone’s life.

The puppy is the newest recruit to join Wanaka’s Aspiring Avalanche Dogs as a search dog during emergencies.

Wizzid came from registered breeders in Te Awamutu about two weeks ago. Both his parents were champion show dogs.

Aspiring Avalanche Dogs founder and handler Matt Gunn said the work ethic and play drive of Border collies was what made them such good search dogs.

“That play drive is a really key thing in search dogs.

“Just something felt right with this one.”

Founded in 2000, Aspiring Avalanche Dogs is made up of four handler-and-dog teams, three of them operational.

In the case of an avalanche where people are trapped, the teams are deployed by NZ Police and are volunteer members of NZ LandSAR.

For someone trapped under the snow without an emergency transmitter, a dog was their best chance of being found alive, Mr Gunn said.

“The name of the game for us is to have two teams at Treble Cone during periods of high hazards.

“We can be airborne with dogs and handlers on board within minutes.

“Obviously, avalanche response is time critical – we’ve got this golden half-hour.”

Mr Gunn said the teams were deployed every two years on average, and were usually stationed to be on stand-by each year, normally in winter.

Since 2000, Aspiring Avalanche Dogs have been involved in 12 searches.

“In every situation we’ve been able to help confirm there’s no-one to find. That’s huge.”

But it won’t be all work and no play for Wizzid. Mr Gunn said while the next few months would involve bonding with the pup, Wizzid would later be turned into a “toy junkie” through plenty of playtime.

“Basically we just get the dog really amped on that.

“The toy is then linked to human scent.

“There’s a process which ends with a dog believing its toy is under the snow – to find the toy it has to find a person.”

Handlers have access to New Zealand police training manuals, which use reward-based systems to train the dogs.

“There’s hundreds of hours go into it over the years.

“We’re all volunteers. It’s a huge amount of work.

“I’ve learned to be patient – I apply it to my children.”

All going to plan, Mr Gunn’s current search dog, Rocket, will work for another three years before Wizzid is trained and ready to take over.

The pup has already paid a visit to Hawea Flat School as part of the organisation’s educational programme, which covers avalanche safety as well as responsible dog ownership, including how to meet and greet a dog with appropriate body language.

The educational side was also very rewarding, Mr Gunn said.

“I get a huge kick out of that.

“It’s incredible how many people are fearful of dogs.

“We don’t want to be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. We want to help people make good decisions.”

But while Wizzid had been welcomed into the family and classrooms, not every one was happy with the new puppy.

“Rocket thinks we’ve lost our minds. He can’t believe it.”