Twenty search dogs and their handlers from nine states participated in the inaugural Four Corners Search and Rescue Workshop last week.
The free, three-day training event was put on by K9 Search and Rescue, based in Dolores.
On a 640-acre ranch off County Road S, various scenarios were set up for dog teams to practice searching for missing people. Another training session in downtown Dolores focused on lost-person behavior.
The free seminar attracted search and rescue organizations from Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Texas, Oklahoma, Idaho, New Mexico, Utah and California.
Certified instructors gave presentations and demonstrations, and the dogs were put through their paces on search disciplines, essential practice for the real thing.
“We saw a definite need for a free training workshop and plan to do this annually,” said Chuck Melvin, K9 Search and Rescue manager.
Search and rescue volunteers are unpaid professional rescuers, he said, who pay out of their own pocket to get to searches, buy gear and attend trainings.
Mariah Voight, of Alpha Search and Recovery, drove up from Houston with her search dogs.
“It is hard to find quality training that is affordable,” she said. “So to come out here and get free training with quality instructors is immeasurable. It gives me information that I take back to my team in Texas.”
The search teams practiced area searches and trailing. In a trailing exercise, a dog is given a scent article of a missing person to aid in the search. For an area search, the dog is instructed to find any person in the search area, and if it is not the missing person, dogs are instructed to “find another.”
In a body recovery exercise, donated placentas, blood and a human hip are hidden in a field.
Janet Yatchak, of the international First Special Response Group, based at Moffett Air Base in California, gave her dog Neo a command to find a missing person who was presumed dead.
He bolted into a field of high grass, moved back and forth with his nose high, then found the distant target.
How a dog indicates a discovery varies from dog to dog, depending on training. Some will sit at the find, and others will return to the handler, sit, circle or bark.
The rewards are simple – usually a toy and praise – and Neo looked proud as he retrieved a ball toy and trotted back to base camp.
Nearby, Quiditty, the Dolores K9 Search and Rescue dog, was sent off to find two missing people – Melvin’s grandkids – hidden in a nearby ditch.
To indicate a successful find, he is trained to return to the handler and circle around him. Earlier this summer, Quiditty successfully detected a lost hiker near Ouray, picking up his scent on a canyon rim.
“Based on that information, a helicopter flew up the canyon and found the man,” said Vicki Shafer, a volunteer with K9 Search and Rescue.
Rescue dogs have to be comfortable in difficult or awkward situations. On a nearby zip line, dogs in harnesses are clipped to the line and released for a ride.
“They get used to all kinds of different environments a live search may present,” Shafer said.