Community Profile: ‘They help us help other people’
Search and rescue dog clinic trains teams for real life rescue and recovery missions
In 2013, Jody Gruys and her search-and-rescue K-9 partner Dessa were dispatched to help the Colorado Bureau of Investigation close an eight-year-old case of a woman who had died somewhere along the banks of the Colorado River near Rulison.
In the heat of the day and in the presence of a bear scouring the riverbank nearby, Dessa was able to clear large sections along the river and locate the eight-year-old skeleton scattered along the shore.
“There was a lot of misinformation about what had happened (to the victim), but Dessa was able to find items that were able to prove that it was a different type of situation than what was reported. It was an accident and not a homicide,” Gruys said. “There’s just no way they would have found this visually or with screens. She was able to determine the difference between human bone and animal bone.”
Ultimately, the K-9/handler duo were able to bring closure to the family who had waited eight years to gain a better understanding of what happened to their lost loved one.
“She was an absolute must of a resource to have on a case like that,” Gruys said. “It would have been days of searching without her.”
The last week of September, Garfield County hosted a training clinic put together by the organization Search and Rescue Dogs of the United States (SARDUS). Over two-dozen teams from across the country gathered in western Garfield County for three days of training and two days of testing.
Initially in the heat, then the wind, and eventually downpours of cold rain, the teams trained and tested in three disciplines: area search, trailing, and human remains detection (HRD).
Trailing dogs are trained to follow a scent on the ground and determine the direction a person has traveled. Area search dogs use air scent to search divided areas or grids to determine if the lost person is in the area or if the section can be cleared.
SARDUS President Jeff Hiebert led the clinic along with eight instructors and seven evaluators.
“Each specialty has its own type of certification. There are generally a series of two tests where we evaluate the handler’s ability to work the dog and the dog’s ability to work the problem,” he said.
Handlers also have to be certified in medical training, navigation, first aid, CPR, and more in order to be on the search-and-rescue team. All of which is done purely on a volunteer basis.
“They need to be able to exist in the world where they are looking for people when it’s usually an emergency, something bad has happened, and make sure that they don’t become victims themselves,” Hiebert said.
It generally takes about two years of training for a dog to go from puppyhood to where they are ready to test and certify. Once certified, dogs and handlers need to have 16 hours of training per month, per discipline and must retest every year or two years depending on the agency.
“We volunteer our time for missions, but we also volunteer our time for training,” Gruys said. “It’s a huge time commitment, but we’re all very dedicated, and we do it because we love it.”
The nose knows
Gruys, who joined the search-an-rescue team in 1997, started training with her first dog a year later in 1998.
Her newest dog Jax is about a year old and already showing signs of being a strong new addition to the team. Though not yet certified, Gruys is currently working to set a trailing foundation in the new K-9, which she has found to be the best method of action when introducing a new dog to the world of search and rescue.
“The nice thing about setting a trailing foundation in a dog is that, even if the dog is working a search grid or clearing an area, if the dog cuts a trail he will take it because he knows how,” Gruys said.
Not only do search-and-rescue dogs need to be able to find lost people, they need to be able to show indications and tell the handler of their find.
“The indication is the most critical part,” instructor Ann Wichmann said. “Most dogs can find somebody they just don’t bother to tell you about it.”
Wichmann has an extensive background in search-and-rescue dog training and has helped develop countless K-9 programs, including the curriculum and standards for the National Disaster Dog Program while on the FEMA subcommittee.
She has deployed with her dogs to a number of disasters including the Mexico City earthquake in 1985 and the daunting task of searching amongst the rubble of the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York.
Wichmann’s dogs Crash and Sky traveled with her from Oregon to help instruct at the recent clinic.
“The dogs are the instructors; I’m just the interpreter,” Wichmann said. “My dog Sky, who is almost 10, is phenomenal at showing people what it’s supposed to look like.”
K-9 teams generally train through mentorships, which is why clinics and training seminars are so beneficial for handlers who often do not have the opportunity to train with others or get one-on-one time with some of the top experts in the field.
“There aren’t a lot of search-and-rescue dogs in the country,” Hiebert said. “If you think about it, New York City has almost 40,000 police officers, and there are only about 2,000 search-and-rescue dogs in the whole country.”
Gruys has had five dogs in her 25 years of volunteering with search and rescue; all of which have been cross-trained to also be able to detect human remains.
“We never know if the person is going to be alive or deceased, so we cross-train our dogs to find live and human remains, so they cross over seamlessly,” Gruys said. “The dog still needs to find them and tell us regardless if they are alive or not.”
The recent SARDUS training seminar included both urban and wilderness searches and set up scenarios, such as a child who was lost after wandering from their house or a hunter who had not returned to their camp. The scenarios rely on people who volunteer their time to set a scent trail and hide so the dogs can find them.
The HRD training took place in multiple Rifle and Silt locations that provided ample opportunities for dogs to search through and find hidden articles.
“We couldn’t do this without the support of the community. These are all volunteers; nobody is getting paid,” Hiebert said. “It’s pretty amazing when you think about it, when you think about all the time they put in away from their families, they all have jobs and to be able to respond when someone needs it.”
The bond between handler and dog is what holds the team together; they work in often-treacherous locations, sometimes in the dark and in terrible weather. They work together as one team reading and feeding off of each other.
“You’re working with this being that has decided it’s going to team up with you and help someone when they need it the most and a lot of times it’s not in the most pleasant places,” Gruys said. “Getting out and working with an animal and the unconditional love from that animal just kind of feeds your soul. They help us help other people.”
Post Independent Visual Journalist Chelsea Self can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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