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Julián Elizari and his partner and rescue dog Tango
Julián Elizari and his partner and rescue dog Tango | Photo courtesy of Julián Elizari

Firefighter and rescue dog save skier buried under five feet of snow in Argentina

We followed Tango closely and made probes to indicate the victims' locations. While Tango began to dig, we helped brush away the snow. Later, we discovered that the snow on top of the victim weighed 200 kilograms (441 pounds). We spotted a motionless hand as we brushed the snow bit by bit. A bad feeling arose in us.

Julián Elizari
Interview Subject
Julián Elizari, 57, is a firefighter currently living in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. He works as a firefighter and is a long-time employee of the Municipal Directorate of Civil Defense. Tango is his 10-year-old golden retriever trained in search and rescue. Together they have saved “lost people” in emergencies such avalanches and structural collapses.
Background Information
Search and rescue dogs, or fire dogs, are animals trained to find living or recently deceased people in many different situations. Those may include people covered by snow or earth, large areas, confined spaces like collapsed structures, landslides, castaways, and even forensic search victims. Some dogs serve paramedical functions.

Dogs have a more developed sense of smell than humans. Mn has about five million olfactory cells, while a dog has about two hundred and fifty million. They are capable of detecting the smell of a living person by the forty thousand cells that they shed from the skin by the minute. Those cells float in the air like rafts.

The smell of putrefaction also helps dogs locate victims. These are so-called “sniffer dogs,” as opposed to “sniffing dogs,” which specialize in finding lost people by following their trail, sometimes starting from the last place they were seen.

TIERRA DEL FUEGO, Argentina – When duty calls, I bring Tango, a 10-year-old golden retriever and search and rescue dog. Tango finds people lost in large areas like avalanches and collapsed structures.

Tango and I go out every other day together, regardless of weather. To him, serious rescue missions are like a game, but this game saves lives

Extensive training prepares Tango for rescue missions

When Tango came into the world, I left him with his mother for two or three months to give them time to strengthen their connection. A strong bond grew between them, which would later benefit Tango’s training.

Watching their interactions allowed us to understand Tango’s traits and create training customized to him. For example, he proved a hyperactive dog with a good biting habit, capable of maintaining good relationships. This makes a good rescue dog.

Once we select a puppy to be a rescue dog, we begin training by playing “pisada” with him. Pisada allows a dog to identify different elements in a drawer, such as plastic bottles. They learn to step on the surfaces of various objects like teddy bears, wood, branches, and sheets. Training moves slowly, never skipping a step; otherwise, the rescue dog will not be well-prepared for this challenging work.

Tango, the professional search and rescue dog | Photo courtesy of Julián Elizari

After the first stage of “pisada” ends, the second stage called “toreo” begins. In this stage, we test and adjust barking volume based on different intensity levels to trace the missing person. We leave his favorite toy somewhere and wait for him to find it. As he gets closer to the toy, he barks louder and louder.

The third and most critical stage of training, called “el figurante,” mimics a game of hide-and-seek between the trainer and rescue dog. At this time, we walk through more extensive and demanding areas like collapsed structures and avalanches.

Teaching Tango to find lost victims

The word “figurante” refers to a lost person. The firefighter or a family member shows the rescue dog a small ball. This motivates him to look for the missing person. Sometimes the trainer stands in the snow and squats with his face down at five meters. Other times, the lost person remains out of sight, giving no clues for the dog to trace. Finally, sometimes the lost person hides in a tree. The scenarios take place in steep mountains and allow the dog to trace the victim by scent.

Tango waiting for the signal to start a rescue mission | Photo courtesy of Julián Elizari

When I train Tango, I wear distinctive clothing. Tango uses his breastplate to identify whether it is a game, an exercise, or a rescue search during training. The best way for Tango to find victims is through smell. Rescuing people in the snow can be simpler because the snow itself has a neutral scent. Trained dogs typically pinpoint an area by barking and digging the snow to free a trapped person.

Dogs like Tango may not catch the victims’ smell, but rather the scent from their personal belongings including jackets and backpacks. Once he locates a persistent smell in a specific area, he starts barking loudly.

Call alerts firefighter to an avalanche, Tango preps for the rescue

Before our last rescue, I received a call from the Civil Defense (which works like 911) while eating dinner. Due to a poor wi-fi signal, I went to a neighbor’s house to use the phone. An avalanche occurred and I needed to respond. My family helped me prepare for the emergency rescue. I changed quickly while my son prepared my backpack, flashlights, and knives. My wife gathered Tango’s tools and we quickly left my home.

A snowmobile awaited when I arrived near the Martial Glacier in Ushuaia. I went to the collapsed area and started walking up the mountain. I felt apprehensive as my heartbeat quickened and my breathing became labored. Walking up the highly complex and intense mountain made it hard to catch a breath.

Tango and Julián Elizari | Photo courtesy of Julián Elizari

Soon, we saw four more people ready to help. They waited for Tango to smell and locate the victims. They had to ensure the area was not contaminated with other human odors. I took a deep breath and removed my backpack. Then, I put Tango between my legs, marking the start of our work. I motivated him by saying, “Come on, friend, let’s go to work. Come on, come on!”

Once I released Tango, I waited for him to give me the signal. After searching for 10 minutes, he stopped and barked. He found the trails to the victims, yet they were not there. Tango immediately found another path and started barking at a high-intensity level. He wagged his tail in a particular way. I knew by heart he was pointing out the exact route to the victims.

Miraculous rescue saves man from 441 pounds of snow

We followed Tango closely and made probes to indicate the victims’ locations. While Tango began to dig, we helped brush away the snow. Later, we discovered that the snow on top of the victim weighed 200 kilograms (441 pounds). We spotted a motionless hand as we brushed the snow bit by bit. A bad feeling arose in us. There, we found the skier buried under a meter and a half (five feet) of snow. He had been there for more than an hour.

The rescue seemed miraculous. We confirmed two boys were skiing when the avalanche took place. One made it out. The other did not. After a while, the skier could move his fingers, and we verified he was alive. We remained in shock as we moved him out of the snow.

The rescue team tried carrying out the victim buried under five feet of the snow | Photo courtesy of Julián Elizari

We wiped off the snow on his face and he managed to move his arms. Later, we heard him start breathing again. Eventually, we transferred the victim to the regional hospital. Though all of us were freezing cold, we celebrated joyously for saving the man’s life.

I share an inexpressible love with Tango. I respect him. His actions during a rescue move me. To me, Tango is the most loyal dog in the world. We share experiences and communicate in our own language. Sometimes it feels as though we read each other’s minds. In the midst of life and death situations, we share moments of joy and pain.

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Image and Sound Designer, Integral Audiovisual and Journalistic Producer, writer, and teacher.

I started working when I was very young; Since 2001, I was a producer for different television programs, documentary films, radio, and generating creative content for different organizations and companies.

I won the award: "Nuevo Sudaca Border" with the microfiction book "Un Tigre con la Boca Abierta", for Eloisa Cartonera Editorial. I am passionate about telling stories and writing.