A simulated avalanche search and rescue mission induces temporary physiological and behavioural changes in military dogs.

Silvana Diverio, Olimpia Barbato, Roberta Cavallina, Gabriella Guelfi, Martina Iaboni, Renato Zasso, Walter Di Mari, Michele Matteo Santoro, Toby Knowles

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

33 Citations (Scopus)
848 Downloads (Pure)


Saving human lives is of paramount importance in avalanche rescue missions. Avalanche military dogs represent an invaluable resource in these operations. However, their performance can be influenced by several environmental, social and transport challenges. If too severe, these are likely to activate a range of responses to stress, which might put at risk the dogs’ welfare. The aim of this study was to assess the physiological and behavioural responses of a group of military dogs to a Simulated Avalanche Search and Rescue mission (SASR). Seventeen avalanche dogs from the Italian Military Force Guardia di Finanza (SAGF dogs) were monitored during a simulated search for a buried operator in an artificial avalanche area (SASR). Heart rate (HR), body temperature (RBT) and blood samples were collected at rest the day before the trial (T0), immediately after helicopter transport at the onset of the SASR (T1), after the discovery of the buried operator (T2) and 2 hours later (T3). Heart rate (HR), rectal body temperature (RBT), cortisol, aspartate aminotransferase (AST), creatine kinase (CK), non-esterified fatty acids (NEFA) and lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) were measured. During the search mission the behaviour of each SAGF dog was measured by focal animal sampling and qualitatively assessed by its handler and two observers. Inter-rater agreement was evaluated. Snow and environmental variables were also measured. All dogs successfully completed their search for the buried, simulated victim within 10 minutes. The SASR was shown to exert significant increases on RBT, NEFA and cortisol (P<0.001), CK and HR (P<0.01), AST and LDH (P<0.05). These indicate the activation of a response to stress probably induced by the addition of factors such as helicopter transport, disembarking, and the search and rescue exercise. However, changes were moderate and limited over time, progressively decreasing with complete recovery at T3 except for sera cortisol that showed a slightly slower decline. More time walking within the search was related to lower RBT, conversely to walking. Standing still with head up and exploring with head-up were inversely related with HR. Agreement between handler and observers’ opinions on a dog’s search mission ability was found only for motivation, signalling behaviour, signs of stress and possessive reward playing. More time signalling was related to shorter search time. In conclusion, despite extreme environmental and training conditions only temporary physiological and behavioural changes were recorded in the avalanche dogs. Their excellent performance in successful simulated SASR may be attributable to extensive training and good dog-handler relationships. Simulated SASR did not seem to impair SAGF dogs’ performance or welfare.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)193-202
Number of pages10
JournalPhysiology and Behavior
Early online date9 May 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2016


  • Avalanche mission
  • Dog physiology
  • Dog behaviour
  • Cortisol
  • Heart rate
  • Search and rescue dogs


Dive into the research topics of 'A simulated avalanche search and rescue mission induces temporary physiological and behavioural changes in military dogs.'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this