Jake Hutchinson: A Unique Beginning
Jake fell into this unique roll almost on accident. In the early 90’s, he joined the Marine Corps Reserve. He planned on using the Corps to help him pay for college, with the end goal of becoming a pilot. Jake quickly came to realize that this alone wouldn’t pay the bills. He began working construction jobs in the summer, and took on a ski patrol job in the winter. It was here he first began working as a search and rescue dog handler, after the former handler left the patrol team to begin nursing school.
Things once again shifted for Jake a couple of years later, when he was struck by a vehicle during one of his construction jobs. The accident forced him to leave the Marine Corps Reserve, at which point he decided to work with search and rescue dogs full time. Jake continued working as a handler until the 2010/2011 season, when the last dog on the patrol team had passed away. Jake decided to help others with training their search and rescue dogs, pivoting his career, to focus on teaching avalanche courses for the American Avalanche Institute, something he had already done part-time for the previous 10 years while working ski patrol.
It would be nearly another 10 years before Jake took up training a personal dog again, which led to Colt. In that time, Jake has trained anywhere from 400 to 500 dogs across the country.
Avalanche Search and Rescue: Not Your Average Discipline
Jake Hutchinson considers training dogs for avalanche rescue missions to be quite different from typical scent training. Typically with scent training, a dog gets an article of clothing for a scent sample and then they can pick up that person’s smell to track them down. With avalanche rescue, no article of clothing is readily on hand for rescuers to use to find a missing person. Because of this, Jake has to train these search and rescue dogs to pick up on very generic human scents. Every person has a different scent, so it is important for Jake to make sure that the dog can pick up on general human scents as opposed to anything particularly specific.
The snow is another obstacle that needs to be taken into account when training dogs in avalanche search and rescue. If Jake is performing a visual search, he won’t be able to watch his rescue dog at all times, so it’s absolutely vital that the dog has something called “victim loyalty,” meaning they can dig through the snow as far as needed to find a victim, and then stay with them until the handler arrives. Depending on how deep a victim is in the snow, the dog may also be able to pull them out before the handler even gets there. To do that, the rescue dog needs training in prey drive to develop a strong bite grip and pull.
How Dogs Change the Search and Rescue Game
Why is it so important that a rescue dog stays with the victim? Jake explains that a single dog can cover a 100 meter by 100 meter search area in a maximum of 10 to 15 minutes. It would take around 100 human rescuers to search that area in the same amount of time. But Jake really saw the benefits of rescue dogs around the year 2000, when he was called to a search and rescue at a resort in Utah.
Jake was second handler for a Golden Labrador, named Bailey. Along with the primary handler, Roger, they had both been training Bailey for avalanche search and rescue operations, but were still unsure if the training would be fully realized in a real-life rescue scenario. The Sheriff of the county also had his doubts, thinking that search and rescue dogs weren’t worth the large investments that came attached to each individual dog. Once at the scene, though, Bailey was able to get positive indication on a victim in just over 4 minutes. Not only did this alleviate the concerns of the Sheriff’s department, it was also the first time the handlers saw all of their training pay off, taking it from theory to actual results.
Since that time, Jake has gone on to work as a handler in numerous search and rescue operations. Many times, the victims have already passed, but the silver lining to Jake is being able to give their families and loved ones a sense of closure.
Jake’s Other Ventures
Jake’s rescue dog training knowledge isn’t just confined to classrooms. He also runs Avalanche Dog, a resource for anyone looking to study up on the ins and outs of avalanche rescue dog training. Before Jake’s mentor passed away in the mid-2000’s, he had been working on an extensive book that truly detailed the best practices in dog training for search and rescue application, along with data and proven results. Jake molded this into AvalancheDog.com so that all of the data and documentation could be found in one comprehensive place.
For the past 10 years Jake has also worked closely with C-RAD (Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment). Now an advisor and teacher, Jake has helped to turn C-RAD into a fully realized non-profit organization that specializes in training dogs for avalanche work as well as wilderness, air and water scent work.
How Equipment Can Make or Break an Avalanche Rescue Operation
When it comes to being prepared for a search and rescue operation in the mountains, Jake can’t stress enough how important it is to prepare your equipment. While some rescue missions might last just a few hours, an operation deep in the mountains may mean that a team (including a dog and its handler) may need to spend the night out in the elements. Jake prepares for these longer searches with top quality camping gear including sleeping bags, tents and rations.
Equipping the dog for success is just as vital, if not more important. Jake uses the Nomad Harness for Colt, noting its versatility as second to none. When working in the winter, an insulated lining called a Woobie Body can be added to the harness, ensuring Colt stays warm and safe. Before using the Nomad, some conditions were simply too cold for Colt which, not only put the operation at risk, but also Colt's safety. In the summer, the Woobie Body can be removed for better air flow.
Jake also notes the optional Nomad Skid Plate Body as a game changer. This lightweight plating is made from durable Cordura, a ballistic nylon, and gives the dog full chest and belly protection from the elements. This became an important feature to Jake after a training scenario where Colt collided with a downed pine tree, fracturing cartilage in his ribs. With the Skid Plate, the dog is fully protected from injuries like this, and it can quickly be attached or detached from the Nomad Harness at a moment's notice.
Finally, the Nomad’s handles are a necessity for Jake and Colt. Because of the variance in terrain that avalanche rescue teams have to work in, handlers spend a lot of time carrying their dog. Whether it’s on their shoulders, lowering the dog off of ski lifts, or repelling down small cliffs; the handles and clasps on the Nomad Harness are strong and large, perfect for gloved hands to easily grasp and use. The restraint handle at the neck area allows Jake to keep Colt at his side at all times which is critical when working patrol at a ski resort. If a child or guest comes running at a skittish patrol dog, the handler needs to be able to keep them restrained, for the safety of all. Even a small nip from a patrol dog can derail an entire search and rescue program. The Nomad Harness even features handles for attaching to search helicopters. Many states have varying laws on how to secure a search dog in a helicopter, and the Nomad’s versatility meets them all.
Jake Hutchinson has been working with Ray Allen Manufacturing as a means to perform versatile search and rescue duties, to the best of his and the dog's ability. Ray Allen's high quality dog gear has proven to not only help his personal duties, but also his efforts in building successful search and rescue teams across the country. You can find him on Instagram, or visit his Facebook page, for more insight into his world.