The whooshing roar of the San Juan Regional Medical Center’s AirCare helicopter greeted Dolores on Saturday morning as it landed for an annual training session with K-9 Search and Rescue and the Dolores Volunteer Fire & Rescue.
Dogs in training circled and fidgeted as the helicopter landed next to the K-9 Search and Rescue headquarters. Spokeswoman Vicki Shaffer said it helps to get the dogs accustomed to helicopters to prepare for missions.
Flight nurse Ellie Jaramillo Bisland, nurse paramedic and flight supervisor Brent Hamilton and pilot Rick Walters spoke with members of both volunteer rescue groups about the best way to communicate if an AirCare helicopter is needed for a mission.
“God willing we get some snow this winter, let’s talk about what to do in the snow,” Hamilton said.
In whiteout conditions, Walters said it is best for rescue teams to point out or create a contrasting color or shape for him to watch for from the helicopter, such as the bright orange shirts the K-9 Search and Rescue team wears.
Hamilton suggested rescuers carry a can of spray paint and make an “X” in the snow.
“It sets you apart from the other 15 or 20 snowmobiles out there,” Hamilton said.
AirCare also assists in retrieving bodies found by dogs trained to find them.
The search and rescue dogs getting accustomed to helicopters on Saturday were a German shepherd, a black Labrador, a black Labrador-bloodhound mix and an Australian shepherd and border collie puppy mix.
River, a 2-year-old German shepherd, wore mutt goggles and muffs for the helicopter landing, and was raring to go during the training.
“She’s a bright dog, she’s just got to mature more,” her handler Nancy Sklavos said.
One-year-old Kemper did not like the helicopter, either, handler Taylor McFerrin said.
She joined the team to get to know the area and learn new things, though she’s worked with the Montezuma County Search and Rescue team.
“It’s extremely educational,” McFerrin said. “I’m learning to train dogs better, and I’m learning more about myself.”
But Quiddity, Chuck Melvin’s 7-year-old dog, remained calm. She is certified in human remains and water detection.
Melvin has been involved with K-9 Search and Rescue since 1984. He was a reserve deputy for the county when a hunter went missing, and the agency couldn’t find him. Melvin and a group of people advocated for a dog rescue team in the area.
Handlers train and own their own rescue dogs. The current K-9 Search and Rescue team has two certified rescue dogs and four or five in training, Shaffer said.
The dogs are trained for specific purposes. Area dogs use scent to find a missing person, trailing dogs track missing people and can smell anything from a tooth to a full body.
Individual handlers also go through a training process. To be certified, handlers have to have advanced wilderness first aid skills, be able to use a map and compass to navigate as well as a GPS, and use radios to communicate.
Melvin said the job is a “blend between art and science.”
Handlers need to pay attention to the wind and which scents the dogs might be picking up, in addition to the other skills.
“How you put that together is the art,” Melvin said.
Shaffer said it takes the rescue dogs about 600 hours to finish training, and it takes handlers about 1,000 hours to finish training.
“The dogs learn faster than the people,” she said.
The K-9 team is independent, and travels wherever they are needed. A few of the members are from New Mexico and do rescue work there.
“COVID slowed things down,” Randy Bouet, a rescue dog handler, said. But over the past month, there have been at least four calls because “people are trying to get back to normal,” he said.
Bouet said recreators should bring one of the many gadgets that tracks their location and can send it through the proper channels to make missions “less of a search and more of a rescue.”
K-9 Search and Rescue also trains with Flight For Life Colorado with Centura Health out of Mercy Regional Medical Center. When Southwest Memorial Center gets an air ambulance, K-9 Search and Rescue will start training with Classic Air Medical, as well.
Each medical helicopter service has unique requirements, Shaffer said.
The K-9 Search and Rescue team finished their Saturday with practice in Boggy Draw, where volunteers walk the trail and hide, and the rescue dogs search them out.
The team will hold a similar practice at the Montezuma County Fairgrounds on Sunday morning.
Shaffer said the team is “always looking for volunteers” to hide and to join K-9 Search and Rescue. She can be reached at [email protected] or 759-8975.
“We train once a month,” Shaffer said.