The nose knows
These K-9 rescuers are trained to ‘live for the game’ of saving lives
Komo, a border collie puppy, sniffs the ground and then races past the trees toward a woman hiding behind a thick tree trunk about 30 feet away. The puppy wags her tail as the woman yells, “You found me!” and gives her a treat. This game of hide-and-seek is practice for Komo. She is beginning her training as a search-and-rescue dog.
Training often takes place at Butte County K-9 Search and Rescue headquarters, a warehouse on the edge of an orchard off Morrow Lane in south Chico.
The dogs are trained to live for the game because the game is their job, said handler Madde Watts.
Although using their noses to find people is a game for Komo and many of her canine teammates, for their handlers it’s about saving lives—especially during summers, when so many people go hiking, camping and kayaking.
The volunteer group, which started about 17 years ago, is made up of eight dog handlers, all members of the California Rescue Dog Association, and eight mission-ready dogs. Several apprentice dogs, such as Komo, are in the training stage, which takes about two years to complete. They are trained for three types of searches: wilderness, water and human remains. They go through a series of classes and are trained to pick up the human scent, usually to find people who are lost or injured or, in the worst cases, dead.
The volunteers get together twice a month to discuss how training is going and to practice specific training skills. They also have regular training sessions twice each week. The dogs learn obedience, agility, specific search training and how to use their noses.
The volunteers choose dogs that are sociable and highly intelligent, said Trish Cox, the K-9 unit leader. “We have a saying, ‘Trust your dog.'” The volunteers take care of the dogs their whole lives and teach them that they won’t be put in jeopardy.
“It’s very much a partnership,” Cox said. “They give us their heart and soul.”
Because the dogs sometimes have to be lowered into tough terrain by helicopter, they have to go through specific training at the headquarters. Dangling about seven feet in the air, this reporter got a dog’s-eye view of the helicopter rescue training. I realized how the dogs must feel being completely dependent on the people holding the rope. Taking a deep breath, I put all my faith in the harness, and in Watts and Cox, as they put me through a simulation inside the warehouse at the Search and Rescue headquarters.
The handlers took turns practicing for a helicopter rescue by putting their dogs—and themselves—into harnesses and lifting each other six to eight feet into the air with the handlers straddled over their dogs. Some of the dogs stared ahead, trying to zone out, while balancing their paws on their owners’ feet. Yet others simply relaxed and didn’t seem to mind “flying” at all.
Chaos, a border collie nearing the end of the two-year training stage, seemed relaxed as he hung in the air with his handler, trainee Roxanne Reinbold, straddled above him. He sniffed expectantly at her pocket for a treat, which she dutifully gave him. Chaos didn’t show any sign of nervousness, wagging his tail happily as they were lowered to the ground.
“You have to make it fun and exciting,” Reinbold said. “It’s a complete game.”
Sandy Lawrence has been doing search and rescue for eight years, and Chance, her chocolate Labrador retriever, enjoys rescue missions as much as she does. In fact, Lawrence has to hold Chance back because he likes to look over the edge of the helicopter. “He’s fearless,” Lawrence said. “He loves helicopters.”
Besides the helicopter missions, Lawrence and Chance have done wilderness, water and cadaver searches, many during the night. Chance will dive into the water to find someone, Lawrence said. Injuries caused by barbed-wire fences, broken glass or foxtails don’t deter Chance or the other dogs. “They are amazing,” Lawrence said. “To watch them work is phenomenal.”
The dogs get experience to prepare them for real rescues by going through training from the time they are puppies until the day they retire.
During wilderness training, the volunteers take turns searching for each other, often covering 20 to 100 acres within a time span of 30 minutes to four hours.
When the volunteers’ pagers go off, the dogs know it’s time to get into action, said Lisa Johnson, Komo’s handler. “It’s a fun game for them,” Johnson said. “They love it.”
Because the dogs need to be challenged, the volunteers put them through longer and more difficult training.
During the more-advanced training, the volunteers sometimes work with the Paradise Fire Department, which sets up various situations for them. For example, the volunteers recently were told there would be a live drill in Magalia and they could be called to action at any time. When their pagers went off, they had to respond by finding four “victims,” hikers in Magalia who didn’t know about an imaginary fire spreading through parts of Paradise and the upper ridge.
Volunteer Ed Stopper and his Doberman pinscher Bridger found two of the four “victims.” The wind changed, so they didn’t find the other two.
“This isn’t exact science. We just try to learn from it,” Stopper said. But with all the high foliage and poison oak, the terrain gets tough. “It was kind of gnarly out there,” Stopper added.
Variables, such as weather conditions, size of the area and placement of the victim, make each training session different. The training fine-tunes the dogs’ behavior, and they learn how to adapt. The handlers have to become interpreters of the dogs’ natural behavior, Stopper said.
The other “victims,” a pair of hikers, were found on a high trail by Gypsy, a border collie, and her handler David Tygart, a retired firefighter. Tygart and Stopper put flagging tape in the areas they checked and each covered about three miles in an hour, Tygart said.
Finding missing people is rewarding for the dogs and the volunteers, he added. But they have to put in the time if they want the reward.
The volunteers carry pagers and respond to rescue calls usually in Butte, Tehama and Plumas counties. Many of the calls in Butte County are for water rescues or searches. Dog teams are brought into an area before they send in divers because the volunteers want to make sure they are looking in the right place.
Stopper recalled a water rescue in Stony Gorge Reservoir in Glenn County in 1996 with his first dog, Skyler, a Doberman pinscher. A man had been drinking alcohol and then went swimming and drowned in the reservoir. Stopper and his dog were the only canine team that responded, so they went on a boat with other members of Search and Rescue to look for the victim. Skyler kept sniffing the air and was alerting everyone that he found something by pawing at the boat. On the second try, the divers found the body.
Staying safe is important for the people and for the dogs, said Kathleen Lydon, whose border collie Yogi has quite a bit of experience in water rescues.
“Yogi is into self-preservation. His position is, ‘You protect me, Mom,'” she adds with a laugh. Although Yogi is concerned with staying safe, he never lets Lydon down. In fact, Lydon remembers a time when Yogi was so intense on his search that he found a missing person in 15 minutes. She says the dogs work hard and will do whatever is asked of them because they trust their owners to keep them safe.
“This is their game; this is their fun; this is their job,” Lydon said, adding “To know these animals is to love them.”