Keeping Your Dog Safe in Avalanche Country

Living in the southern half of Texas, we don’t have the chance to see much snow here, much less any amounts that reach anything close to avalanche territory. Today, though, we received some helpful tips from Petmate, a company that makes everything from collars to kennels, about how to keep your dog safe on backcountry hikes in avalanche country, great advice for those living in steep country or for travelers headed to the mountains with their dog this winter!

  • Be aware of the risk. When you are with your dog in the backcountry be sure to evaluate avalanche risk constantly, because it can change. Avalanches are more likely during, and the 24 hours immediately after, a storm. The weight of the new snow can cause a slab of existing snow to break off. This is more likely to happen when new snowfall is over six inches, and especially if it’s over a foot. Try to plan your adventure on the side of the mountain where the wind has “scoured” the snow – usually the western facing slopes – rather than the side onto which that snow has been blown. Finally, keep informed about how the snow pack has been developing all season in your area. A stable snow pack means a lower avalanche risk.
  • Keep your pup with you. It is risky to allow your dog to wander off in the backcountry without you. If your dog were to wander into dangerous territory, it’s a danger to both of you.
  • Thinking Before Going Off Leash. “Be sure your dog is ready to be off leash before you set him free. Do you know that you can reliably call him away from a deer or squirrel? Can you stop him from venturing out onto a frozen lake?” asks Elizabeth Simpson from Tenderfoot Training in Boulder, Colorado. “If not, then don’t set him up for failure – he can be just as happy on a short or long lead and still have a great time in the snow with you.”
  • Know Your Dog’s Physical Limits. If you are snowshoeing and your dog is running, remember that you are gliding across the top of the snow while he is sinking in with every step and working hard. He’s getting twice as much exercise as you, so by the time you are tired, he may be truly exhausted. Give your pup lots of breaks and make sure he is staying hydrated.
  • Take care of your safety first. Remember how airlines insist that you give yourself oxygen before you try to help someone else with oxygen? The same principle applies here. In the event of an avalanche, focus on keeping yourself as close to the surface of the snow as possible. Let go of anything you are holding – including the leash – and drop your pack to make yourself as light as possible. Use swimming motions to keep yourself as close to the surface as possible. Once you know you are safe, use extreme caution when locating your dog. If you are alone, call for additional assistance.
  • Carry the right supplies, just in case. Carry a portable shovel made of plastic and aluminum so you will be able to dig out if you and your pup are caught in an avalanche. Digging with a shovel takes less than half the time as digging by hand. Collapsible probes or ski-pole probes are also good to carry, to help rescuers find you if you are not visible from the surface.
  • Dress your pup accordingly. Dogs that do not have a thick, wolf-like coat are not prepared by nature for the cold temperatures, so good booties and a weather proof coat are just as important for Fido as they are for you. In the event of an avalanche it could make a big difference staying dry and warm while you wait for help.
  • Use beacons carefully. A beacon or “transceiver” is critical for you to wear, set to “transmit” during your outing in a place where there is avalanche danger. Many pet parents will be tempted to put a beacon on their pets, but weigh this decision carefully. It is important that, in the event of an avalanche, rescuers find you first. Precious time may be lost as rescuers home in on another beacon.
  • Consider avalanche training. If you are planning to spend a lot of time enjoying the backcountry, consider taking an avalanche training course. The course will help you better recognize avalanche danger, select less risky routes, and improve your chances of surviving an avalanche.

You and your pup can both enjoy the peace and beauty that winter in the mountains has to offer when you understand avalanches and avalanche conditions, and take steps to protect yourself and your furry, outdoor-loving companion.

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About Paris Permenter

Paris Permenter is the founder and co-publisher of LT Media Group LLC. Along with her husband, John Bigley, she edits DogTipper.com, CatTipper.com, and has authored over 30 books on pets and travel.