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'Find her, Woopy!' A day in the life of an avalanche dog

Vali and Woopy

Off to work they go: Vali Meier and colleague Woopy


Vali Meier, responsible for rescue and safety in the Davos-Klosters mountain region, skis off down the slope with canine colleague Woopy on his shoulders. Today, Woopy is looking for a buried dummy. 

avalanche dogs

Avalanche dog looks for a buried dummy

It’s impossible to say when dogs started being used to rescue avalanche victims. The Swiss Alpine Rescue serviceexternal link says it is not certain that the renowned St Bernard, Barry, was the first. Barry is thought to have kept watch over the St Bernard pass in the 1800s and saved around 40 people. 

In 1937 a group of 18 schoolboys was hit by an avalanche in the Bernese Oberland. While rescuers managed to find 17 of them, one was still missing. The search was on the point of being called off when a local mixed-breed dog known as Moritzli drew the rescuers' attention to a particular location in the snow. After prodding the ground with sticks, they found the 18th member of the group who was resuscitated. 

A dog specialist, Ferdinand Smutz, heard the story and in 1940 presented the idea of training dogs to the army. The army undertook training during the Second World War in order to trace avalanche victims and in 1945 the Swiss Alpine Clubexternal link took over specialised canine rescue training. 

The Federal Council decided in 1951 that dogs should be trained and yearly courses organised by the Swiss Alpine Club. During the 1950s dogs were first parachuted into rescue spots from airplanes and they were later carried by helicopter to alpine searches.

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