Henry the avalanche rescue dog

Henry the avalanche rescue dog
All photos courtesy of @2019 Cosmic Picture Limited.

Between his job as a search and rescue dog in the mountains of Whistler, BC and his role in the recent IMAX film, Superpower Dogs, Henry is a busy pup. Luckily, he wouldn’t have it any other way!

All dogs have their own special powers. Some are good at performing tricks, others protect their families, and they all have an infinite supply of unconditional love. But it takes an extra special dog to save lives – a superpower dog, if you will. Henry the Border Collie is one such hero. Recently featured in the IMAX film, Superpower Dogs – an immersive visual story that highlights the extraordinary bravery of some of the world’s most remarkable dogs, Henry is one of Canada’s elite Search and Rescue/Avalanche Dogs. He was the only Canadian canine featured in the film, and he did his country proud! But it’s off-camera in the snow-swept mountains where Henry really shines.

A hero in the making

Born April 12, 2012 in Claremont, Ontario, Henry was hand selected by his breeder for Ian Bunbury, a senior dog trainer/handler with the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association.

Having worked with other Border Collies, Ian was looking for a pup who had the sociable, outgoing characteristics of the breed, but also one with an “off-switch”. “This is an important quality in the relationship I have with Henry: he is ready to go whenever/wherever required, but during our downtime, he is happy to just hang out with me.”

From early on, Ian began training Henry for search and rescue work. He compares the training process to a long “game” of hide and seek – one that starts with positive rewards for finding things. Long-distance walks, bushwhacking off trail, basic obedience behaviours and solid recall also played a large role in the process. Eventually, Henry was taught to indicate to Ian where objects/avalanche subjects were, even when they couldn’t be seen.

According to Ian, Henry had to learn how to “fake sleep” and “wake up” on cue for one particular scene in Superpower Dogs. Naturally, he did a super job!
According to Ian, Henry had to learn how to “fake sleep” and “wake up” on cue for one particular scene in Superpower Dogs. Naturally, he did a super job!

“The connection between dog and handler is of utmost importance,” says Ian. “Whether searching an avalanche debris field, performing an obedience routine, operating in public or just messing around, the dog will learn that doing things together is the best.” The bond between Ian and Henry has taken them to great heights – literally! All winter, Henry accompanies Ian to his job as a Ski Patroller on Whistler Mountain. Their role is to respond to Avalanche Search and Rescue calls, something that only 35 other dogs in Canada are trained to do.

“His favourite part is the actual searching part, where he gets to lope out front, covering ground in a way we can’t even imagine,” says Ian. “He has a very methodical, serious way about him when he is working that reflects his strong herding genetics.”

Henry’s list of “accomplishments” is topped by the recovery of an avalanche victim (deceased) in the spring of 2017. Working independently after three hours, Henry indicated – and subsequently made contact with — the subject, who was buried almost a metre below the snow’s surface. Though the victim wasn’t found alive, Ian feels the incident strengthened their bond as a team, and made Henry an even better avalanche rescue dog.

Henry loves his ongoing training

Now seven years old, Henry continues to build on his substantial skillset. “There is always some new situation to adapt to, some new twist to a behaviour he already knows,” says Ian. Their weekly training includes search and recue practice, transportation by snowmobile, toboggan and chairlift, and having Henry ride on Ian’s shoulders. They also train annually in helicopter long line insertion and extrication.

This might seem like a lot for one pup to handle, but Henry thrives on learning and keeping busy. In fact, in his “down” time, he helps Ian with avalanche awareness education demonstrations for young skiers and snowboarders.

Of course, like all superheroes, Henry has his “kryptonite”. The moment Ian clips a leash onto the Henry’s collar, the dog’s entire body sags. He’d much rather be working unconfined on the job, or engaging in essentially any off-leash outdoor sport with his handler.

The two have had some interesting opportunities. “In the summer of 2014, Henry and I had a job herding Canada geese away from the grassy public areas in the municipal parks of Whistler,” says Ian. “As much fun as that was for a Border Collie, Henry went to a whole other level when he occasionally got to square up with the local black bears…still his favourite game by far. Close second: herding snowmobiles on the mountain.”

Even at home, Henry is constantly ready and willing to go. He’s always eager to take on a new challenge, and happy to accompany Ian anywhere he goes. “It is said that ‘you get the dog that you deserve,’” says Ian. “Imagine how grateful I am!”




Emily Watson is a staff writer for Animal Wellness Magazine and Canadian Dogs Annual. She is a certified yoga and medical Qi Gong instructor and has been writing — creatively and otherwise — for ten years. Off the mat and away from the keyboard, Emily can be found hiking, camping and travelling with her wife and fur babies.