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December 15, 2013: K-9 Search and Rescue, Session #2

What a day I had. It was my second K-9 Search and Rescue training session. I need to attend six sessions before working with Ryder in this venue. This is more and more fine with me – there is a great deal that I have to learn. Right now I need to pay close attention to what the other dogs and handlers are doing. Like before, today there was some hurry up and wait. Then it seemed there were a half-dozen things going on at once vying for my attention.

This morning, before daybreak, I met with Stacey who is one of four more experienced dog handlers. We met in town and then drove to Hatcher Pass. All the way up, and all the way back, and in between, I asked her innumerable questions about search and rescue. Add her to the list of women who are now adding to my dog training knowledge base.

Stacey, either in person or via email, answers my questions like they’re the most important questions in the world. And she’s been encouraging me to follow her when she’s been working with other handlers and their dogs. This is more helpful than she probably realizes. Otherwise, I’d probably end up standing out in the parking lot and watching the search and rescue training activities from afar. But no, I have been in the thick of it.

Hatcher Pass is in the Talkeetna Mountains, which now are covered with snow. The only way to describe this place is that it must be like being in the Swiss Alps. It’s awe inspiring to be there – a different world than down below. For me, it is like being in Colorado, above tree line.

Aerial (who owns Padme, the Leonburger) was in charge today. She made sure that those involved signed in (this indicates to those like the state troopers that training is ongoing) and later signed out. She also made sure that we all had avalanche beacons, and that all had checked their beacons. And she directed the trench building activities.

I continued (today) to follow Stacey around. She first worked with Lisa, a firefighter/diver-rescuer, and her ebullient black lab Max. She put Max, who was one of the most enthused dogs I have ever met, on a long, bright orange line. He roamed around a bit, but soon he found his subject (Amanda), who was hiding behind some brush. Amanda rewarded him by giving him his toy, a ball on a stick. His M.O. is to retrieve, so she played fetch with him.

Next, Stacey gave directives to Amanda, who was working with her black lab, Rowen. Rowen was not as ebullient as Max, but she too had considerable energy. This time, Max repeatedly sought out and found Lisa. This was once when Amanda was lying under a tarp with some snow piled on it.

Stacey next worked with Dan, a firefighter who was working with a sporting Golden retriever named Dug. Dug, off line, ranged far and wide in his repeated search for Alex, who was his subject. Stacey explained to me that Dug was learning to let Dan know that he’d found his subject – he is to convey this by tugging on a rope tied to Dan’s waist. Dug did find Alex, who engaged the dog in a very serious game of tug of war. And I do mean serious – Dug was pulling Alex, who was on the ground, around for some time. Alex finally got up and staggered uphill, so that Dug might again find him. Alex, once he got partway uphill, announced that his phone was missing.

Stacey and Dan began trudging uphill. I stayed back, and looked the area over carefully. I figured that most likely, the phone fell out of his pocket when Dug was pulling Alex downhill. So I went back and retraced dog and subject’s footsteps. In seconds, I found the phone. (If I were to do this again, I would have asked what color the case might be.) I asked, and was told by Stacey that the other Stacey’s dog, Bettles, has been trained to find articles.

I remained quiet about my find. However, I sure felt smug. After all, I’m the newbie who knows nothing about anything.

As we headed back to the parking lot, Stacey explained to me (in response to my question) that sometimes the dogs do find victims who have died. The handlers then have to let the very somber dogs know that they’ve done a good job, by playing with them.

Lastly, Stacey finally got to work with her own dog, Lucas. She had him do two retrievals. Ariel was Lucas’s subject. The snow had not been deep enough for snow cave building, so instead, the subjects were encased in trenches. Aerial laid on an ensolite pad, and another was placed on top of her, as I was told, so that she’d stay warm. Then she was wrapped in a tarp. Beforehand, Donna made sure that she had a radio and an avalanche beacon on her person, and that both were working. The group then covered her in snow. Twice, in very short order, Lucas found and began digging Aerial out of her snowy grave. And both times, the group members imitated those looking for avalanche victims, by tapping their shovels on the ground.

Aerial, of course, rewarded Lucas for a job well done, by playing tug of war with him. And after, Stacey continued to play tug of war with him, so that it was verified that he knew what he was doing.

I learned some very important things in the end-of-session debriefing. The most valuable may have been about the snow cave/trench building protocol. Donna made it clear that this is not at all a haphazard procedure – that there are directives that must be followed. Having radios on hand, and quickly uncovering the subject if they request it, are essential.

Indeed, Ariel said that she’d recently taken an avalanche class in which the victims said that they could hear the people above them, but that they could not hear them. And too, the same held true for herself. She added that the only time in which she felt nervous was when the snow was being piled on top of her – this being a reminder to the rest of us to be very gentle when doing this in the future. I didn’t say it, but I immediately thought that being buried like this would be like being locked in the trunk of a car. No, I’m not sure I would do this.

I say, very sobering, this work of training dogs is to save people’s lives.

Next: 265: 12/16/13: Jenna as Animal Spirit Guide