By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor
BIG SKY – Ian Shives and his dog, Flapjack, have been training together for 10 months. In addition to the common obedience commands like “sit” and “come,” Flapjack has been learning how to follow his nose.
Together, Shives and Flapjack will slowly pass through a snow-filled area in a mock avalanche search, Shives paying close attention to Flapjack’s body language in order to confirm what he smells. “As he catches the scent, he’ll catch where it is strongest and start digging there,” Shives said.
Knowing he’ll be rewarded for finding people in the snow, Flapjack is moving into the advanced stages of his avalanche training, and Shives, in his third season as a member of Big Sky Resort ski patrol, has been with him every step of the way.
With a $750 award from the Erika Pankow Scholarship Fund, the duo will embark on the last phases of training in March to become an avalanche search team; they’ll attend a four-day training course offered by the American Avalanche Institute, at Grand Targhee Resort in Alta, Wyoming.
After completing the course, Shives hopes to return home prepared for the avalanche search certification test, which will likely be held at Yellowstone Club or Bridger Bowl Ski Area later in March.
“Hopefully by getting my dog, Flapjack, certified, it will not only help Big Sky at the resort, but in the community as well,” Shives said, adding that they could help with search and rescue efforts in addition to ski patrol.
Flapjack is the first dog Shives has trained in avalanche search. In fact, the suspected Australian shepherd-blue heeler cross is the first dog Shives has had since the family dog of his youth.
Three years ago, Shives was visiting his former hometown of Boise, Idaho, and stopped in at the local animal shelter where he used to volunteer. That’s when he met the 6-month-old Flapjack, who had been surrendered to the shelter along with his littermates. Shives ended up adopting the puppy, and the very next day they drove home to Big Sky.
“I thought he would be a pretty good dog to train to be an avalanche dog,” Shives said, describing Flapjack’s calm demeanor and how obedience training came with ease. “He learned things really quickly. It seemed like he wanted to learn.”
About 3 1/2 years old, Flapjack is a little bit older than the two other avalanche dogs currently in training at Big Sky Resort, but Shives feels like age hasn’t been a setback, as all of the dogs are on the same track for progress.
Initially, Shives started Flapjack with runaways, where someone would hold onto Flapjack while Shives ran away from him and then hid in the snow. To encourage the dog to find him, Shives would play with Flapjack with a tug toy and get him really excited before running away. Once found, Shives would again play with the dog.
“They’re always looking for a human in the snow so that they can play,” Shives said.
As Flapjack advanced, Shives would introduce strangers as the runaway, eventually progressing to the point where Flapjack no longer watched someone run away from him. Now, Flapjack is working on full burials of strangers, where a volunteer that the dog is unfamiliar with hides in a snow cave and Shives and Flapjack must search the area in a grid to try to find the person.
“When we’re out there, I don’t know where the people are and he doesn’t know where the people are, so I have to read his body language and he has to read mine,” Shives said, adding that he can encourage Flapjack to move through an area or get his attention without saying a word. “The bond between the two of us definitely grows as we’re doing it.”
While this avalanche team is nearing certification, Shives knows that their training won’t ever be complete. “We’re constantly learning,” he said. “Dogs have their own personalities, they have good days and bad days like us.”