A look at the work of search and rescue dogs

This past weekend, I had the privilege to observe a training exercise for some of Alaska’s search and rescue dogs. The training wasn’t only for the dogs. The handlers benefit from these sessions by learning various search techniques and observing the signals and nuances of how their dog reacts under a variety of search conditions.

My long-time friend and fellow Hunter Education Instructor, Vikki, invited me to observe how the dogs are trained and to give me an idea of exactly what search and rescue dogs do. She and her German Shepherd, Taiya, are among the longest serving members of search and rescue in the Valley and perhaps in the state. Their organization, Alaska Solstice Search Dogs, is relatively new, but Vikki has been doing this type work for nearly 20 years.

Alaska Solstice Search Dogs currently has around 12 members and seven dogs who are all volunteers. They receive no compensation for their time training or when out on actual searches. There is no compensation to offset the cost of veterinary care or food or other associated costs of keeping a search and rescue dog.

The team members provide their own camping and search equipment (the troopers have given them radios for communication), including any specialized gear the dogs might need and, oftentimes, receive no per diem or fuel cost reimbursement when called out for a search. When asked why they were willing to incur these financial costs and significant time commitments, they all said they had a passion for helping families find lost and missing loved ones and a sense of pride in serving the public safety by providing this service.

The fact that the group receives very little financial reimbursement from either the borough or the state to offset expenses, yet they are on 24/7/365 standby for call-out by the state troopers or other law enforcement agencies, surprised me. We’ll talk more about this later.

The group had arranged with a valley landowner for the use of their property for training. The area is large enough to allow trailing exercises and cadaver search scenarios and with the small lake on the property, also allows water search training exercises as well.

This next is a little uncomfortable but is a critical part of the training exercises. To properly train the dogs, the scents used must be realistic. The group receives various human scent sources from medical and public health organizations which allows the members to set up training scenarios which mimic the real world.

The work is generally called search and rescue, but the reality is that, oftentimes, the person(s) lost in the Alaskan landscape may no longer be alive. Then the work becomes a recovery effort. The trailing exercises are designed to train both handler and dog to follow a specific scent trail, despite various distractions for the dog, to the logical end of finding the person alive. The members, who play the lost person(s) wandering in the bush, take turns laying a trail for the dogs to follow until the folks are found.

I observed a land-based recovery effort where, in the scenario, the person was deceased and thought to be in a certain general area. The dog’s job was to find the body for recovery. Taiya, Vikki’s German Shepherd, was the oldest dog attending the training session and had the most experience in performing the various types of searches. She whizzed through this exercise in no time.

Unfortunately, efforts on the water are also usually to recover a body. I was surprised to learn that enough scent rises out of the water, depending on the depth of the body, that the dogs can home in on where a body might be found under the water. As Vikki explained to me, when conditions are right, the dog can usually reduce the search area for divers looking to recover a body from a large area measured in acres to an area measurable in feet. This saves significant time and resources in the recovery effort.

When I went out in the boat with Vikki and Taiya, Vikki explained how the dog’s various postures and vocalizations gave her feedback on where to direct the boat operator, Donna, to go in the search. True to her training and Vikki’s knowledge of what Taiya was telling her, we ended up directly over the scent source.

I’ll go into more detail next week on the certifications the dogs receive and some of the avalanche training the group does.

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