Training for Rosko and Cait started from the first day they met, and hasn’t stopped since. This is their story about the first season of training to become an avalanche rescue team.
A puppy’s brain is a sponge to all the stimuli and input it can be exposed to, so doing this gradually and being in tune with their responses is critical to ensuring positive experiences each time. Patience is key. There is no rush to get to the end result, especially since it is much more difficult to un-do and then reteach, than to slow down and teach with patience.
Rosko and I began with the basics. In order to train a successful and skilled search dog, the bond between handler and dog must be solid and steadfast. This does not just happen overnight, or by just hanging out with each other. Obedience skills build the foundation for this bond and help develop a mutual respect for dog and handler. They also make for a well-mannered pup that I felt comfortable taking everywhere and anywhere with me. As Rosko and I built basic obedience skills and trust, I also began slowly exposing him to various stimuli environments. This ranged from being outside around lawnmowers, bicycles, quads, and busy traffic in town areas, to rivers, beaches, paddleboards and sailboats. And it all happened gradually. Think of how you’d feel trying to sort out biking on loose gravel for the first time without training wheels – a bit intimidating, and would likely result in a fall and not wanting to get back on! Rosko’s first time interacting with anything was when it was ‘cold’ – engine off and/or not in motion. He had time to investigate it with me right there to reinforce that it was OK. Then we’d gradually build up the confidence. It was almost a whole week before we even put the quad bike in motion with him on it, because if he got scared of it one time, it would take ages to un do that fear and reinstall trust.
Then came the water. Brad was instrumental in developing Rosko’s swimming skills from a young age (he was way more willing to get in cold water than I was) and this became a great way to build endurance and stamina without the pounding on young joints. Now it’s his absolute most favorite thing to do (aside from bound through powder). We also attended several puppy schools and follow on courses, not only to train new skills, but to hone the skills he already knew around different distractions, mainly in the form of other dogs and humans. These proved so valuable, and we continue to go to classes now for the same reasons.
Then it was time to move south for winter and attend our first training camp with LandSAR at Lake Ohau. Rosko was one of the youngest dogs at the camp, and our hard work and time put into training paid off. He performed excellently for his age and for being in such a new environment, with all sorts of stimuli around. He absolutely loved the snow, demonstrated great working drive and temperament, and for a puppy who just wanted to play with all the other dogs, even did pretty well at his obedience work! From here, we would take these learnings and continue to slowly progress our skills as a team over our first winter at Mt Cheeseman.
At Mt Cheeseman, Rosko became the star of the show every Sunday evening when all the staff introduce themselves to the lodge guests. I capitalized on as many opportunities like this as I could, to continue to work on fundamentals around distractions, as well as educate people on why avalanche search dogs are so vital to have in the event of a slide. Out on the snow, Rosko and I not only gradually built up his search skills, but also trained on running the T-bar track safely with me, moving downhill either on my shoulders or between my legs, and on riding a snowmobile (this is where the quads translated super well!). The only thing we were lacking was a chairlift – but we ticked this off the list during a short visit back down to the Ohau Snowfields. Rosko also proved to be quite successful in the arena of patient care. When we were not training, he would hang out in our ski patrol room/first aid room, and helped put a smile on many of our patients faces during times that otherwise were not so pleasant.
The winter went faster than I would have liked, and soon enough we were on our way back south again, this time to Snow Farm outside of Wanaka, for the LandSAR Assessment Camp. At this stage, Rosko and I are a Trainee team, and have one more winter of building skills before we are formally assessed. We did have opportunities to show off all the hard work we’d put in over the winter, and get tips and hints on how to continue to become a strong working team. Even though the winter season was coming to a close, we are far from done with our training. We’ll continue to reinforce our obedience skills, learn new, fun skills and games to keep the brain engaged, and most of all, do a lot of playing over the summer.
Written by Cait Hall and her furry partner, Rosko!