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A missing person’s best friends

In Search and Rescue (SAR), teamwork is important, with each team member bringing a different set of valuable skills. This is especially true for our search dogs. Their skills are truly unique, amazing and so very valuable.

Taz is my eight-year-old border collie. We started training when she was twelve weeks old, playing “hide and seek” with children in the neighborhood who would hide behind snow banks. Taz is my second search dog. My first was Shockoe, a blue heeler. We’ve traveled throughout Colorado to assist on a variety of different searches.

Living in Grand County we are usually looking for people who are lost in the woods. Search dogs smell scent that is flowing through the air from the person, find scent that has fallen onto the ground, or find scent left on something the person left behind.

Just as we can distinguish faces in a crowd, trained search dogs can pick out the scent of a specific person. They can pick up the scent from a person hundreds of yards, sometimes miles, away. They can pick up scent that is flowing up through the snow or the water. They can follow the scent where someone has walked, in the woods or along a busy street, right away or a day later. With these skills, search dogs can do so much more than a person.

Training search dogs builds on the natural skills dogs needed to find food in the wild. With the luxury of being given food in a bowl, their sense of smell is not as strong as when they hunted, but still most dogs’ sense of smell is good enough to be a search dog and can improve with training.

Search dogs don’t have to be a specific breed. The primary requirement is that they like to play “hide and seek,” also known as “prey drive” and “hunt drive.” Search dogs are often herding breeds, retrieving breeds, or hounds. Mutts often make incredible search dogs because they can combine the best of different breeds.

Working with search dogs is truly a team activity. Search dogs generally learn quickly, and it is their handlers that need most of the training. Much of our training is developing ways for our dogs to communicate that they found some scent and for us to understand what they have found.

The primary key to success is the handler’s time, patience and commitment for the training. We train with our search dogs once or twice a week, and train with the rest of the search and rescue team as well on other needed skills. Search dog handlers’ roles and training also include navigation, understanding wind patterns so we can give our dogs the best chance of finding the scent or determining where the scent is coming from, and helping them through situations when the scent disappears.

As with people our search dogs can’t do everything and we don’t always find the person. The person may not be where we are looking, the scent might be trapped or moving so our dogs can’t get to it, or our dogs may find some scent, but we aren’t able to figure out how the scent has gotten from the person to where we are.

In Grand County, we have two search and rescue dog teams that have completed national certifications, of which Taz and I are one. Grand County Search and Rescue (GCSAR) has two other teams in training. Winter Park Resort has two avalanche search dog teams in training. It typically takes two to three years for the basic training and then more time to learn skills for specialized work such as avalanche and water work.

We would like to have more search dog teams in Grand County. If you are interested, please give me a call at 720.201.4487 or send an email to jmather@criticalcore.com. It is a lot of work, but it is very rewarding. Search dog handlers develop an incredible bond with their dogs.

If you would like to help out, we always welcome people to help us train by hiding for our dogs or walking somewhere our dogs can follow. Please give me a call. As with other search and rescue activities, search dog team trainings are a great way to enjoy the outdoors and help others. High school students and others who are completing community service hours can earn hours by helping us with training.

We are always thankful for contributions. GCSAR is an all-volunteer team, with limited resources from the local sheriff, state funds and donations. We don’t charge for our services. Search dog handlers are generally responsible for almost all training and equipment costs. Traveling to work with other trainers is one of the most costly parts. I’ve traveled to Virginia, Georgia, Montana and most recently South Dakota, where I was able to work with the lead search dog trainer for the US Border Patrol. We are always striving to get better so that we can help others. “This we do so that others may live.”