Dax, a one-year-old black Labrador retriever, made his way through the snowy desert terrain just outside White Rock, past pine trees and junipers and toward Ed Santiago, a search and rescue volunteer.
Using his keen sense of smell and his finely tuned hearing, Dax located Ed, who was perched about seven feet above the ground in a pine tree, within minutes. Dax, clearly delighted with his discovery, rushed to owner and handler Cathy Wilson of White Rock, alerting her to his discovery before plunging into the snow.
Dax is in the early stages of training to become a certified search and rescue dog, which typically takes between a year and 18 months. Not all dogs are trained to learn the same skills. Some specialize in air smelling or area finding, while others focus on detecting leaks or human remains. The intensive process includes weekly sessions with Los Alamos-based Pajarito Canine Search and Rescue to prepare him to be ready for action at a moment’s notice.
Looking at Dax, it didn’t look like he was training for anything as serious as search and rescue. He was enthusiastic – and that’s how search and rescue training should be, said Wendee Brunish, director of Pajarito Canine Search and Rescue.
When Dax – who is training to become a certified scent hound – succeeded in his “find”, Cathy and other members of the team showered him with praise and attention. Enthusiasm and rewards are key to successful search and rescue dog training, Brunish said. Thanks to the encouragement, the dogs see the task at hand as an exciting game.
Rewards should be chosen based on a dog’s personality and preferences, Brunish said, adding, “We work with dogs to figure out what really excites them.”
While Dax seemed pleased with the treats he received, Hades, a 4-year-old husky who is also in the early stages of his air-scent training, was rewarded with his favorite toy – a green ball lemon – which he continued to hunt while playing with his trainer, Sara Blaisdell.
Making sure the dogs are having fun is paramount, Brunish said. She tries to implement training problems that are difficult enough to keep dogs from getting bored while ensuring that they are not so difficult that dogs become frustrated and indifferent.
Dax and Hades accompanied Maddie, a 2-year-old black Labrador, and Jessie, a 4-year-old Dutch shepherd, to Saturday morning training. Although the four dogs are of different breeds, varying in age, height and weight, they have more in common than meets the eye: their drive, energy and focus. It’s that initiative and determination, Brunish said, that determines whether a dog will succeed in locating a missing person.
There is no specific breed that makes the best search and rescue dog. Dogs must have the ability to travel great distances, often at high altitudes, so those with natural athletic ability seem to fare better. According to Brunish, sporting and herding dogs are common. “These breeds have been bred over centuries to work in partnership with humans,” she said.
Billy Emanuel, who is vice president of New Mexico Working K9s, pointed out that there are no requirements for the type of dog as long as he is able to perform the task at hand – although he prefers them. bloodhounds.
“It’s the individual dog and the individual dog reader,” Emanuel said. “I saw all kinds of dogs working there. These people have Australian Shepherds, they have German Shepherds, they have Labs, they have Border Collies. I have actually seen beagles in teams. It’s really unbelievable.”
Although there is some debate over which breeds are best for search and rescue, Brunish and Emanuel said that if a dog has the will and the will to learn, it will likely succeed as a search and rescue dog.
New Mexico is home to a number of canine search and rescue organizations. “As far as civilian organizations that do canine search and rescue, there are plenty in New Mexico,” Emanuel said. “They are more or less like clubs.”
“Anytime there’s a lost person – whether it’s a hiker or a skier or a piñon picker or a mushroom hunter – when someone’s late, the state police will get a call, they’ll make a little investigation, and if they determine that it warrants a search, then they will start calling all the volunteer crews in the area,” Brunish said.
Incident commanders give each team of dog handlers an assignment – around 40 to 80 acres to work on. Teams are given as much information as possible about the missing person, including their last known location, height, weight, and what they were last seen in.
“There are dozens of missions in the state every year, and we’re probably called up between 20 and 30,” Brunish said. “Sometimes we go a month or two without a call, and sometimes we get three to four calls in a single weekend.”
Several teams of dogs and handlers were put to the test last month during a search and rescue mission in late February to help locate a missing man north of Española. Lette Birn, director of training for Mountain Canine Corps, and her dog Piper participated in the two-day search.
Birn, who has traveled the country in the wake of disasters such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the campfire in Paradise, Calif., was quick to point out how much New Mexico is distinct from other states.
“We are very fortunate that search and rescue falls under the DPS – Department of Public Safety,” Birn said. Because New Mexico is adopting the incident command system, “It’s a huge help for the whole search and rescue community here,” she added.
New Mexico is a very difficult state for search and rescue. Due to the vast and vast expanses of empty land, search areas are often very large and dry conditions make it harder for dogs to smell.
“The terrain is usually very steep, lots of downed trees, lots of rocks, so you can’t work a large area in a short time,” Brunish said. “And then it’s often very dry, which means the amount of scent available to dogs is less than in a more humid environment.”
As you would expect in the wild, dogs and their handlers face a wide variety of dangers.
“We are exposed to all kinds of dangers – everything you can think of and probably a few more,” Brunish said. “We’ve had dogs that have been bitten by snakes in training. We’ve had a dog that walked into some sort of electric fence while on a search. I’ve been on searches where I had to ask my assistants to fight loose dogs with a stick so they don’t attack my dog.
Emanuel said he agreed, adding: “There are malapais, there are cacti, there are snakes. There are coyotes, bears and cougars. There are a lot of things teams need to worry about.
“The dog and handler act as a team, not independently of each other,” Emanuel said.
Search and Rescue Dog Teams are just civilian volunteers – everyday people and their pets – who love the outdoors and are committed to serving their communities.
“These people devote their own time. It’s their hobby. For some, it’s their way of life, and they like to do it, and they’re on a mission to find the lost,” Emanuel said. “The dogs, they are part of their families. They are in their house. They are their pets until the time of deployment.
These four-legged heroes and their handlers truly embody the search and rescue motto: “May Others Live”.
“We’re just here to help with the overall search effort to make sure the person gets home safe and sound,” Brunish said.