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Avalanche Rescue Dogs at Vancouver Olympics on Alert

  • David Byrd

Eric Seelenfreund and his dog Murphy are part of the avalanche rescue team working for the 2010 Winter Olympics at Whistler Mountain

Eric Seelenfreund and his dog Murphy are part of the avalanche rescue team working for the 2010 Winter Olympics at Whistler Mountain

Not all of the teams in Vancouver are here to compete. Some are here to save lives should the unthinkable happen. They can be the best way to find someone buried in snow, but the idea of using them has only been around for a few decades.

Eric Seelenfreund and his dog Murphy are unmistakable against the white snow of the Whistler Olympic venues. Eric wears a bright red and black parka with a huge Maltese cross on the sleeve. He wears a black cap with the same emblem and the words 'Squaw Valley K-9 Pro Patrol'.

Behind his sunglasses, his steel-blue eyes have the kind of focus that speaks of confidence and training. Just a few meters away his golden retriever Murphy rolls happily in the snow next to the road.

But Murphy is in Whistler for very serious business. He and Seelenfruend are part of the avalanche rescue team working the Winter Olympics. Seelenfreund says that Murphy's nose could be the difference between life and death for someone under snow.

"He's a really good avalanche rescue dog and they do it all by smell," said Seelenfreund. "But right now he's just messing around a little bit. But he's a fourth generation avalanche rescue dog. His dad is also in the rescue team.

A northern California native, Seelenfruend says that he used to ski at Squaw Valley and saw the ski patrol working and decided that's what he wanted to do. The 42-year-old father of three has been a member of the Squaw Valley ski patrol for 20 years. He is certified as an emergency medical technician, outdoor emergency care technician, and is a member of the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association.

The training for rescue dogs starts early and the Squaw Valley team is considered an elite team. Among the stringent standards from the Canadian group is a requirement that dogs can find scented items (pieces of clothing worn by patrollers for training purposes) buried overnight at 70 centimeters deep. Seelenfreund says Murphy had some pretty rigorous tests to pass before he could be part of the team.

"You go through a certifications course, a validation course. We do a mock avalanche rescue. And in the end you search for articles and a buried pack to simulate a person. And you do your transceiver search and you have to answer all the right questions, and it's a CARDA simulated test," he explained.

CARDA says that because of its super sensitive nose and stamina, a search dog will only need 30 minutes to cover one hectare of snow. A human team probing the snow would take almost four hours to cover the same area. With the difference between life and death down to a matter of minutes, the dogs can lead rescuers to a buried skier long before any other means would find them.

Because the ski patrol has to reach avalanche victims under several conditions, the dogs have to be able to ride on a chair lift, work out of a helicopter, and ride in a variety of vehicles. It takes constant attention and a close relationship with their handlers.

Eric Seelenfreund and Murphy are one of four teams from Squaw Valley working the games. Several other teams from Canada are also here to make sure that if they are needed, they can save lives.