Column: In praise of dedicated sextiped heroes |

Column: In praise of dedicated sextiped heroes

Earlier this summer, I was delighted to be invited to observe the Garfield County Search and Rescue dog teams training in the old Bank of Colorado Building, just before final demolition. Without electricity, the dark and rubble-strewn rooms and corridors felt eerily like an urban disaster scene.

We humans had to wear headlamps and carry flashlights; but the dogs were completely unfazed, eagerly searching the premises for either volunteer “victims” in hiding or planted samples of HRD (decomposing human tissue.)

Each dog found what he or she was searching for, methodically moving through the building either right to left or left to right, as directed by the handler. Finding the live “victim” was a joyous accomplishment for the dogs. They learn to search for a missing person from their earliest puppyhood, and it’s a game for them. The samples are harder, because they are well hidden in tight and out-of-reach places, as they might realistically be on a mission.

I saw Misty halt, raise her head, catching the scent of the sample concealed above an overhead ceiling tile. Unable to give her usual alert because it was out of reach, she had to improvise a clear signal to her handler, which she did.

A week ago, I sat with Jodi Gruys at an outdoor table at Starbucks, learning about her nearly two decades of work with Garfield County SAR with her two German shepherds: Dessa, who had an 11-plus-year career, and her current dog, Diesel. Now 3 years old and having achieved his required certifications, the eager young dog is acquiring the experience that results in good judgment on missions. Diesel sat relaxed by Jodi’s side, rising to politely greet each passerby.

GarCo SAR has 40-45 members who serve at the request of the Sheriff’s Office, responding to approximately 30 missions a year. These can be lost people in wilderness areas, under every imaginable terrain and weather circumstance, river rescues, snowmobile missions, high angle rope rescues and canine searches for human remains — even years later.

“Our SAR team is small enough we can’t just specialize in one thing,” Jodi said. “We have to be capable and competent in all of them. Not only search and rescue, but also dog handling and scent work. We train every chance we get and love every minute of it.”

The 10 dog and handler teams are often called to help in neighboring counties. Although some equipment and logistic supports are supplied by government, the dogs are owned by their handlers, and virtually all the expenses of the arduous training schedule (they train a couple of days every week, on average), travel to meet testing and certification requirements, special equipment, veterinary expenses (injuries are not rare, given the nature of the work) are covered by the dogs’ owners and money raised by the non-profit organization.

In 2014, the teams racked up 5,500 training hours. Most of the members also work, which means training time comes on weekends and vacation days, with actual missions entailing unpaid time off.

What is it that inspires such dedication and sacrifice? Well, there is the drive to be of service to others in need and vulnerable. Volunteer firefighters must share this motivation, and people involved in various kinds of rescues and interventions for people and animals.

But the passion for being part of a purposeful human/dog team has its own reward in the special bond that grows over a lifetime of working and training and living together.

Jodi told me about one of Dessa’s last missions. It was an evidence search over an area where a human bone had been found. She was able to find enough to not only identify the person but to determine the cause of death, providing comfort and closure for a family.

There are two-legged heroes, of course. And many with four legs. A search and rescue dog team is truly a sextiped hero. The person and the dog function as a unit, with perfect communication and trust enabling achievements neither could make alone. We all benefit from the skill and dedication of these life-saving human-dog partners, who contribute so much to the safety and well-being of our rugged mountain communities.

Laurie Raymond owns High Tails Dog & Cat Outfitters in Glenwood Springs.

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