Search and Rescue dogs know practice makes perfect
By Mira Brody EBS STAFF
BRIDGER CANYON – I sit quietly on a semi-comfortable stump in a pine forest just north of Bridger Bowl Ski Area. Insects buzz and a raven cries overhead, but otherwise it is quiet. I am a lost person, and I’m relying on my own scent to be found.
Suddenly, the air is punctuated by the jingle of a collar bell and a massive German shepherd emerges from the brush. Sabre takes one look at me, turns away, sits and emits three sharp barks. Bonnie Whitman, his handler, follows close behind, pulls out an orange Kong ball on a rope, and we both reward his successful find with play.
Sabre and Whitman are one of five Western Montana Search Dogs teams out at Crosscut Mountain Sports Center on June 26 refining their skills. The nonprofit trains dogs in four season wilderness search and rescue for Gallatin County Search and Rescue. This includes article location (such as clothing), water search and recovery, tracking and trailing, avalanche recovery and human remains detection. In addition to Gallatin County, the teams are often utilized by sheriff’s offices throughout Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
“It is such an art and we’re never masters at it,” said Whitman, a retired Yellowstone National Park ranger and current coroner for Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office. She has been handling search dogs for nearly three decades and is considered a veteran of the craft.
When called onto a scene, the teams use a grid system, then zig-zag within those grids to narrow the search. Wind, temperature and amount of time passed since the subject was last seen all affects the dog’s ability to search, as all those elements can affect how a person’s shed skin cells direct the dog.
“That’s why you want to get them out early,” said Chris Dover, another search and rescue veteran. Dover is the handler to Chipper, a 3-year-old German shepherd.
Search and rescue dog training begins at eight weeks and full certification takes about two years and there are different certifications for each discipline. The hardest test consists of 120 acres—the handler and their dog are tasked with finding three lost people in four hours. After being certified, the dogs need consistent practice—about twice a week—to hone skills and build those foundational elements. They’ll recertify every two years and retire at around 10 years old.
“These are our personal dogs and the traits that makes then good SAR dogs make them kind of terrible pets, to be honest,” said Alyssa Hitchcock. Hitchcock is training her first dog, a black lab named Yodel, and has been with Western Montana Search Dogs for about four years. “They’re super driven, they are very confident and very bullheaded in getting what they want.”
To aid with their practice days, Western Montana Search Dogs calls for volunteers to be “lost.” In addition to myself, our other volunteer today was Julie Kunen, who saw the posting on a Bozeman community forum. She tells me she responded because she “loves dogs,” while lovingly petting Ringo and Jake, two bloodhounds who belong to Russell Lubner, who has been with SAR since 1994.
“It’s super important that we get new people out to volunteer to hide just because, if you can imagine, if we hide for each other all the time, the dogs get used to finding the other handlers,” Hitchcock said.
To get “lost,” Kunen hikes off trail through the woods in the same way a disoriented person might. She marks both her start and end point on a GPS so that the handlers can track how accurate they were after the find. Back at the start, Chipper sniffs a gauze pad Kunen had hiked with to get a whiff of her scent before starting on the hunt. He places his nose on the ground (called “tracking”), and moves into the woods to find Kunen.
When Chipper picks up her scent, he does what Dover calls a “refind”—each dog has their own way of communicating a refind. Reading these communication cues is why the intimate bond between a handler and their dog is so important when they’re out in the field searching for a person, explains Whitman.
“The dogs, they don’t make mistakes, it’s how we read them that matters,” she said. “There’s no mistaking for that handler what that dog does. We all learn to read our dogs and we help each other with what their ears are doing, their tails are doing.”
The entire process resembles a huge puzzle—you’re mapping out a large area, sometimes over treacherous terrain or in poor conditions, following a dog who is seeking out a specific scent. The effort takes a lot of teamwork, both between handler and dog, as well as between teams.
“We’re all each other’s successes, whether it’s his dog or my dog, it doesn’t matter because we all need to help each other be successful because that’s what we do and that’s why we’re out there,” said Whitman.
Back in my hiding spot, I tug at Sabre’s toy. His large, bull-shaped head shakes back and fourth as he tugs excitedly, encouraging me to keep playing. He has earned his reward—I am a saved lost person.
“People think they do it because they like people,” said Whitman, watching the both of us. “But really, they just do it for this.”