Search and Rescue canine teams take flight

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It was a busy day recently for Classic Air Medical at Bean Ranch Road, off US Highway 50 south of Whitewater with multiple takes offs and landings, short flights over the area.

Worrying as this might appear, no one needed medical attention; it was a training mission for the Western Slope Search Dogs (WSSD), a local non-profit providing canine teams to the Mesa County Search and Rescue Control’s K-9 Team.

“This is an invaluable opportunity for the canine teams,” says Donna Tessier, Lead Trainer for WSSD and in her 18th year in Search and Rescue. “If canine teams can be flown to a remote search site, valuable time is saved and the dogs will have the energy to track and, hopefully, locate the subject.”

It was the first time around a helicopter for all the dogs, except Kuma, an 11-year-old German Shepherd. She is a nationally (SARDUS) certified cadaver, or human remains detection, dog and is handled by Tessier. Kuma has been at this since she was two years old.

To the handlers’ surprise, the dogs were unfazed by the noise, dirt and wind generated by the propellers. The dogs all loaded smoothly, despite being wrangled by unfamiliar members of the flight crew and ground team.

For Ginger, a 1-year-old tracking Bloodhound, “This was just another day with her team,” says Karin Barnes. “The noise and dust made no impression on her, but of course, there was slobber everywhere!”

All the dogs, except Kuma, are less than three years old, and have been with WSSD for less than a year. It’s not unusual for a dog to take 2-3 years to certify, and well over 1,000 hours of training.

The teams go through multiple types of training and conditioning, both within WSSD and in outside classes including obedience, nose work, agility and rally. All the disciplines build trust, strength, stamina and knowledge. Within WSSD the dogs learn trailing/tracking, area search, human remains detection and articles and evidence searching. They also learn to be transported on ATVs. Being exposed to helicopters is just one more piece the canine teams need.

Tessier, a professional dog trainer, handles Vader, a 2-year-old German Shepherd/Malinois. She says, “The big surprise was Vader, who had absolutely no issues going onto the helicopter, following me with complete trust. The dog must have absolute trust in its handler — the absolute trust a handler must have in their dog.” Vader will be specializing in cadaver work.

Commented Karen Cornell of her tracker-in-training Golden Retriever Madi, “I was totally amazed at the trust Madi has in me. She tried to get in before me, like, ‘Come on Mom, hurry up, let’s do this!’ Totally blew me away. Madi isn’t even a year old, and she has such trust and confidence.” Madi is also exploring human remains detection.

Pat Kimerling added, “I was not nervous about the flight; Ziggy sensed that calm and was calm as well.” Ziggy is a 2-year-old German Shepherd, training to track and also find human remains.

Cornell added, “Our body language is so key, as is being precise in the tone of your voice, whether command or play. The dogs follow our lead.”

The handlers all agree, and Kimerling summed it up: “How you feel travels down the leash, so feel confident!” They also temper their excitement with sense of calm, which benefits dogs and handlers alike.

Echo, a Belgian Tervuren is coming up on three years old, and is training as an area search dog. He wasn’t too sure about getting on the helicopter. When his handler, Judy Pearce, said, “Follow me, even if it’s scary,” he trusted her and up he went, settling between her knees. Pearce says, “He trusts me and will go anywhere with me. He was a little nervous, but looked out the window a few times and calmed with pets.”

Ziggy sat at Kimerling’s feet during their flight, and looked out the window. Vader laid his head on Tessier’s thigh. She adds, “When I stretched my legs out a little bit he laid down and again put his head on my leg.” Was Vader offering up support to Tessier? It seems to go both ways, as with trust.

“Madi looked out the window almost the whole time. She did start to get too hot and turned around to say,’ Mom, turn on the air,’ then she went back to looking outside. She liked seeing the people when landing,” says Cornell.

Dixie, a black Labrador riding with her handler, P.J. Easter and Team Madi, “Buried her head in between my legs and hung out for the ride. I just kept reinforcing that everything was okay,” says Easter.

“Dixie stayed calm and P.J. has a smile that would light up the world,“ says Cornell. Dixie specializes in finding articles and evidence; she is also under two years old.

“Snug would have preferred not to wear the goggles, but he appreciated them when he was at the landing zone, with all the blowing debris,” says handler Lowrey Mumford. “He knew something important was going down, and trusted me implicitly, even as he wriggled to explore the inside of the helicopter. Like his flight partner, Ziggy, Snug was fascinated by what was out the window.” This Silken Windhound is training in tracking and human remains detection; he is two years old.

Pilot Curt Collins and his two flight officers trained the search and rescue members and handlers on setting up a landing zone, moving dogs safely around and in the helicopter, and communications. All the dogs wore eye protection and their working harnesses for their safety.

Barnes summed up the training for everyone, “The flight crew was amazing!”

The only disappointment for the canine teams was the other SAR members didn’t get a chance to go up; the crew needed fuel to get back to their base.

This training showed handlers and dogs alike that the hours of training and trust-building pays off. In this unfamiliar and somewhat hostile environment, the dogs worked with the handlers with calmness and dedication. It demonstrated, once again, the old adage, “Trust your dog!” holds true.

Source: The Daily Sentinel

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