Snow Dogs Save Avalanche Victims

A large avalanche can release the equivalent of 20 football fields filled with 10 feet of snow and travel up to 200 miles per hour. On Wednesday's Early Show, Melinda Murphy talks about an important survival tool.

Earlier this week, seven skiers were killed in British Columbia by an avalanche. It also happens to be the busiest avalanche season on record in Utah. Paul Hanson survived an avalanche there earlier this month.

"I knew I was in a real predicament. The feeling was, I was prepared to die in that avalanche, literally," he says.

Like more and more people searching for adventure, Hanson was skiing outside the ski area. Most people trigger the avalanches themselves. Luckily, Hanson was wearing a special radiotransceiver, which allowed him to be found easily, but for anyone else, their best hope may have four legs and bad breath.

Ricki is a 7-month-old Labrador training to be an avalanche rescue dog at the Alta Ski Resort.

Ricki is only half of the team. The other half is her handler, Steve Janke.

"We train these dogs the same way that a lot of people would train a normal dog. You know, the obedience part, anyway and then you just make the whole rescue part of it a game," Janke explains.

The rescue training starts with little things like burying human-scented clothing in the snow.

Ricki is now learning to find people starting with the person she knows best, Janke. His scent rises out of the snow and Ricki uses her nose to find him. She follows his smell and makes a beeline right to Janke. With hundreds of millions of scent receptors Ricki was able to sniff him right out.

The game part of it comes in the reward, lots of praise and a good old tug of war.

Ricki is named after a young man named Richard Jones. His body was recovered by another Alta dog last year. His family donated the money to purchase Ricki. The hope is that in a year, Ricki will grow up to be like Stella.

Stella, an 11-year-old veteran, has seen her share of work. This is her 11th season, her handler Clark says. "She's going to retire after this. She's had a great career. She's been on at least 15 or so searches."

Ricki's progress is overseen by Dan O'Connor. He worked with the first rescue dog at Alta more than 20 years ago. Now he's in charge of training the 18 dogs in the area.

"It was a nice easy drill, set up for success. We're building this dog's confidence. This dog's a puppy. I want everything to be successful," O'Connor says.

But the hope is Ricki will never have to use her skills.

And not all of those searches were for avalanche victims. Just ask Early Show producer Jennifer Cohen. She blew out her knee skiing in a blizzard eight years ago and Stella helped find her.

After all these years, she says, it is nice to see Stella again, "but she doesn't seem to remember me," she says with a laugh.

In fact, today, Stella is more interested in sticks than Jen. But when it matters, Stella rises to the occasion.

Just like Ricki, Stella also has to train. Every week, she searches out somebody buried in the snow just to keep in practice. This time, Murphy was the victim.

"You'll have plenty of air. Just stay calm and take deep breaths. You might be a little nervous at first, but you'll get through it," says O'Connor to Murphy.

These dogs have found people in up to 15 feet of snow, but for her burial, they dug a shallow hole and it wasn't roomy. To bury her, Janke started with big blocks of snow and then packed more on top.

"Alright, great, we're going to leave you in there for about three or four minutes and then we'll bring in Clark and Stella," Janke says.

The waiting time allowed for her scent to rise out of the snow. For her, she says it felt like forever

Finally, Stella and Clark from Alta Ski Patrol, began. Stella tried to find Murphy's scent while Clark used the wind to guide her.

She looked and looked and looked. They did two trials and the second time, the wind cooperated. In just under three minutes, Stella found her.

Her protege, Ricki, was allowed to join the find and then Clark helped pull Murphy out.

If she had been an actual avalanche victim, she probably would have survived. People found within 15 minutes have a 92 percent chance of living. That drops down to 30 percent at 35 minutes.

Since time is so important, these dogs often travel by helicopter

Of course, most of the time, Stella runs on the ski trails, takes the lifts the skiers use and even rides on snowmobiles. It is evident, Stella loves her job and people love Stella.

The dogs are pretty amazing. They say if you give a certified avalanche dog a football field, she can find a person buried in snow up to 12 feet in 30 minutes. Give five people probes and it take 15 hours to cover the same area.