4 Dog Training Tips From an Avalanche Dog Trainer

dog training

Tremper is a hero. He lives in avalanche country, training nearly every day and patrolling mountains with Andrew Hennigh, director of the Mt. Rose Avalanche Dog and Handler Program.

Hennigh developed the program for dogs and their handlers. He knows what to look for in a puppy, how to raise a search-and-rescue dog, and the ongoing training needed to prepare dogs for an avalanche.

Tremper’s day job is to save lives, but being heroic isn’t limited to avalanche rescue missions; the dog in your home can be a hero by just being himself. With these four dog-training tips from Tremper and Hennigh, you can unleash the hero in your pup—no snow required, just a pet-friendly floor.

Dog training tip #1: obedience

To become an avalanche dog, basic obedience commands are the first requirement. When teaching your dog commands like sit, stay, or come, it’s important that your pup gets a big reward when he does what you ask.

“Finding out what motivates your dog the most is very important,” Hennigh says. “If it’s a piece of kibble, that’s great. But if it takes an entire hot dog, then that’s what you have to work with.”

And if you have to ask multiple times, you’re not getting the command across to your pet. Hennigh suggests trying two things. First, take a step back to a simpler command, then work your way to the command that needs help. Second, instead of repeating yourself, say your dog’s name so he reverts his attention back to you, make eye contact, and then ask again.

Dog training tip #2: mental agility

Mental agility is just as important as physical agility. When you exercise your dog’s mind, it builds trust between you and your dog. That’s helpful for situations when you need him to respond well to potentially unusual commands.

“You’re basically building trust in the dog,” Hennigh says, “so at some point when you’re outside or in a weird situation, you can ask your dog to do something, and that level of trust is there between you and your dog.”

In your home, Hennigh suggests setting up a pillow fort. Ask your dog to go into it, and then give him praise and a reward for responding well to the task. Or, just ask your dog to sit in a chair or go to a place in the house that he usually wouldn’t.

“Things like that will instill trust,” Hennigh says.

Dog training tip #3: scent

Dog-training activities involving scent are important for dogs and give them a sense of purpose. One of the many jobs avalanche dogs have is to use their nose to find skiers buried under several feet of snow.

“All dogs should have a job,” Hennigh says. “They feel like they’re doing something fun or important.”

But it doesn’t stop there. Scent training is great for your dog to feel like he’s a part of your family, too. “He’s learning to work as [part of] a team,” Hennigh says. “Instead of being a human or a dog, you’re becoming a part of the pack.”

dog training walking

Hennigh’s dog training tip for scent is to take something like a sweater and sleep with it overnight to get your scent on it. Then, hide it in a closet. Walk your dog over to the closet, letting him use his nose to get to it. Once he finds it, praise and reward him, and let him play tug-of-war with the sweater (if you can part with it!).

“Playing tug-of-war and shredding the item to pieces initiates their prey, retrieving, and hunting drives,” Hennigh says.

He also suggests having one person stand on one side of a room with the dog, and the second person on the other side with a toy. Get the dog excited by the toy, and then hide it, letting him use his nose to find it.

And don’t forget to praise him as if he’s done the best thing you’ve ever seen.

Dog training tip #4: independence

Avalanche dogs have to work independently in many ways, and it’s actually part of their training to go on out-of-sight drills so they learn to not rely on cues from their human.

To work on your dog’s independence, Hennigh says it’s important to have good energy. “Your energy travels down the leash,” he says. “You have to be really positive, and make it about having a good time with your dog.”

Hennigh’s dog training tip is to play a simple game of hide-and-seek in your home. Once you’ve hidden, call for your dog to come find you to initiate the game.

“This activity helps with trust,” Hennigh says. “But when it comes back to being the boss again, you can trust that your dog will play well and listen. It’s sort of a give-and-take.”

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