Despite the ubiquitous cellphone and the popularity of handheld Global Positioning System receivers, people still get lost.
And for those hapless, technologically challenged wanderers who lose their way in the state’s forests or deserts, their last hope could well be Taz, Callie, Diego, Cisco or any of Sandia Search Dogs’ other search and rescue dogs.
Sandia Search Dogs is an Albuquerque-based, 12-year-old all-volunteer organization that provides wilderness search and rescue services for lost people within the state. Most of its missions originate with a call from the State Police, the designated agency for search and rescue missions.
State Police Sgt. Tim Johnson said the agency conducted 92 search and rescue missions last year, some of which involved canine search teams.
Cindy Oliver, a volunteer with Sandia Search Dogs, said the organization participated in 15 to 20 search missions in 2010.
Search and rescue dogs are usually called on to find lost children, elderly people who have wandered off or overdue hikers, hunters and fishermen who may be injured, sick or lost. Sandia Search Dogs has also begun training dogs to locate deceased victims of accidents and suicide on land and in or near water.
Mary Berry, a practicing veterinarian and lead trainer for Sandia Search Dogs, founded the group in 1999. For several years before that, she volunteered with a local search and rescue group that primarily provided ground search crews, communications systems and evacuation assistance. Although there was a canine component to the group, it wasn’t the group’s focus.
“It just seemed like the canine aspect of the team wasn’t thriving, so I decided maybe the thing to do was to branch out and start a dog team,” Berry said.
Sandia Search Dogs currently has four certified human/canine search teams. Seven of its nine two-legged team members are training five additional dogs, which range from Rhodesian ridgebacks and Labrador retrievers to German shepherds.
Each handler has their own dog, often raising them since they were puppies.
Search and rescue work isn’t for every dog, however.
“About 99 percent of the dogs out there would not make good working dogs,” said trainer and handler Oliver, who got involved with Sandia Search Dogs while attending an obedience class with her German shepherd, Dona.
Dogs are initially given a “suitability test” to determine whether they have the temperament for search dog work, Oliver said.
“That looks at the dog’s drive and whether they’ll hunt for something, like a toy, without giving up or becoming distracted,” she said. The dogs also have to like people and not be overly shy of new people.
The toys – and tons of praise for a job well done – are the dogs’ motivation, Oliver said.
Once accepted for the program, the handler and dog train together under the tutelage of more senior members. The program sometimes trains with outside trainers.
“It takes about two years to become certified” as a search and rescue canine, Oliver said.
There are two distinct disciplines for search and rescue dogs, though each has the common goal of finding lost people.
Taz, Berry’s 3-year-old yellow Lab, is an “air scent” dog.
Callie, Oliver’s 3-year-old yellow Lab, is a “trailing” dog.
Humans continually shed microscopic particles that carry a particular scent.
“Air scent” dogs are trained to locate people by pinpointing the highest concentration of scent suspended in the surrounding air. “Trailing” dogs are trained to find people by following the path of scent deposited on the ground or on vegetation as a person moves through an area.
“A trailing dog typically works on a long leash, and you use a scent article, like the missing person’s shirt or something, and let the dog sniff it,” Berry said. “You try to start the search where the person was last known to have been. The dog follows the scent trail and, hopefully, finds the missing person.”
Trailing dogs, she said, are the ones you see depicted on television shows, with their nose down on the ground as they eagerly race toward their quarry.
“Air scent” dogs work off leash, combing a wide area in search of a human – any human – within the area. Using hand signals and voice commands, the handler directs the air scent dog through the designated search area. When the dog finds a human, he returns to the handler, gives an alert, then continually runs between the two humans until they make contact.
“If the person they found is just a hiker or another searcher, you just reward the dog and send him back to look for more people,” Berry said.
Typically, a search will involve both types of dogs. Handler/canine teams are always accompanied by at least one field support person who helps coordinate the search and ensure the safety of the searchers.
The group trains year round, meeting at least once a week to hone its skills. They often meet in and around the Sandia and Manzano mountains for “wilderness” training, but also hold “motivational” trainings at various city parks.
At a training session near the La Cueva Picnic Grounds in the Sandia foothills last week, volunteers took turns hiking over hills and across arroyos, laying scent trails for the eager dogs to follow.
Once the dogs located their “lost” subject (their success rate was 100 percent that day), they were rewarded by a few minutes of play with their favorite toy, vigorous petting and a chorus of “good boy” or “good girl.” As the saying goes, a good time was had by all.
“It’s fun,” Berry said. “If you’re an outdoorsy kind of person who has a dog that’s well suited for the work, you’re going to enjoy it and he’s going to enjoy it.”
But the serious side of search and rescue work is never overlooked.
“You go on the missions and you’re hopeful that you’re going to make a difference – that you’ll be part of saving someone’s life or that you can bring closure to a family because you have found the deceased.
“The things that keep you going are the enjoyment of working with the dogs and the camaraderie you share with the other team members.”
“We do the training with the hope that we’ll find someone. That’s always in the back of your head, that you’ll be able to help people,” Oliver said. “That’s why search and rescue people do this, and why we’re committed to the training.”
“If your dog is doing well, the training is really fun. The dogs love it, and they keep you motivated. Of course, the dogs don’t realize they could be changing someone’s world, but we do. It’s a good cause.”
For more information about Sandia Search Dogs, visit their website at http://pages.swcp.com/SSD/.