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Meet Kipper, the newest — and only — avalanche dog in Canada's North

Kipper, at Whitehorse's Mount Sima ski hill, is one of 8 avalanche dogs in training registered with the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association. There are another 30 fully-qualified avalanche dogs working in Alberta and British Columbia.   (Katie Todd/CBC - image credit)
Kipper, at Whitehorse's Mount Sima ski hill, is one of 8 avalanche dogs in training registered with the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association. There are another 30 fully-qualified avalanche dogs working in Alberta and British Columbia. (Katie Todd/CBC - image credit)

A two-year-old German Shepherd in Whitehorse is Canada's northernmost avalanche dog.

Kipper has just completed his avalanche-dog-in-training certification, and could become fully certified in a year.

He will be spending most of his time at Whitehorse's Mt. Sima Alpine Adventure Park, but is also available to respond to incidents in the wider Yukon, and northern B.C.

His handler is Mt. Sima's head of mountain safety and risk management, Kirstie Simpson. Kipper is Simpson's fourth avalanche dog since the ski hill opened in 1993.

Simpson said avalanches pose a small risk in certain areas at Mt. Sima, and that's monitored and mitigated by the hill's staff and patrollers.

In the unlikely event an avalanche burial does happen, she said a dog like Kipper can help access the debris field "in four-wheel drive."

"They've got four legs, they can run really, really fast. So he can cover an area so much faster than a human being," Simpson said.

Kipper would be sent in with an avalanche rescue team, Simpson explained, once the area is deemed safe to access.

"You have a team of probers that are walking forward in a probe line or you have people searching with their transceivers — and he can just basically cover that whole area...at least 20 times faster than human being can do it."

Kipper will be spending most of his time at Mt Sima Alpine Adventure Park, but is also available to respond to incidents in the wider Yukon, and Northern BC.
Kipper will be spending most of his time at Mt Sima Alpine Adventure Park, but is also available to respond to incidents in the wider Yukon, and Northern BC.

Kipper will be spending most of his time at Mt Sima, but is also available to respond to incidents in the wider Yukon, and northern B.C. (Katie Todd/CBC)

Simpson said training an avalanche dog is by no means a straightforward process.

Firstly, the handler is required to complete technical training with the Canadian Avalanche Association, including avalanche search and rescue skills.

She said the dogs are "pretty well picked before they're born" from a reputable kennel or line of working dogs.

"Once the pups are born, those puppies are evaluated in their first eight weeks and then they're selected out of that litter," she said.

"They've got a pretty nice puppy-hood but during that puppy-hood, they're discouraged from things like animal and squirrel chasing, and then encouraged to do things like tug for a reward."

When the dogs are between six months and one year old, Simpson said they are assessed by the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association on things like their "tug drive," ball-searching skills and friendliness.

Then, they must pass a winter program — which Kipper just did in Fernie, B.C.

"It's pretty intense, like lots of avalanche explosives going on... chairlifts, blizzards, winds, lots of noise, lots of other dogs, lots and lots of people," Simpson said.

"And so there we set up a whole bunch of quinzees or snow caves and they're introduced to searching for people in those caves, and then more than one person. And that goes on for a week."

A year from now, Kipper will be re-assessed in the intermediate dog program, and potentially given a chance to be validated as an avalanche dog.

Kirstie Simpson at work at Mt. Sima, where she heads the ski patrol team.
Kirstie Simpson at work at Mt. Sima, where she heads the ski patrol team.

Kirstie Simpson at work at Mt. Sima, where she heads the ski patrol team. (Katie Todd/CBC)

Kipper is one of eight avalanche dogs in training registered with Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA).

There are another 30 fully-qualified dogs working in Alberta and B.C.

CARDA president Kyle Hale said the Yukon is an area with unique challenges when it comes to avalanche safety, including a "lack of resources and incredibly long response times."

"It's really nice to have an operational dog in that area, not just for the Yukon but also for northern British Columbia as well," he said.

Hale said he'd welcome interest in the program from anyone else.

"It's a bit of a process to get all of the personal skill sets and certifications in place and then add the dog onto that after the fact, but there's definitely always room for additional handlers on our program, from anywhere."