So, you’re heading out to the backcountry with your dog. What could go wrong? Well, a lot! We sat down with veteran California Alpine County Search and Rescue Dog handlers, Chris and Lisa, to find out a bit more about what they do, what their dogs do, and some tips to keep you and your pup safe on the trails.
Beaujet and Mika are German Shepherds trained in Wilderness, Cadaver, and Avalanching Searching. Both dogs are ‘accomplished’, which means that they have successfully found people and human remains. They more specialize in 'search', rather than 'rescue', so the dogs are often called to find remains or clear a disaster area.
Beau, Mika, and their handlers, are on call 24/7, and are always ready to load up as quickly as possible for their next search. While their county is Alpine, they will often be called to help out on searches outside their area, like the Paradise Fire, nearby ski resorts, and Desolation Wilderness.
Beaujet is 8, and and Mika is 10.5 years old now, but they both started training around 8 weeks old. Work for the dogs is always all about fun for them, even though it is a really demanding and time consuming job from humans. Because Chris has a full time job, it took her and Mika three years to become a certified SAR dog team.
To become a certified Search and Rescue dog team, they needed to pass a certification test, and then re-certify every two years. There are many different disciplines within Search and Rescue: Wilderness, Cadaver, Urban, Disaster, Tracking, Water, and more. Each discipline has their own certification tests. Wilderness Type 1 tests must be conducted over 7k feet in elevation.
Beaujet and Mika actually have the (unofficial) US record for deepest recovery! They, along with another SAR dog, were able to locate a body 1200 feet down in Lake Tahoe. And no, they did not swim that far down (I asked). The human scent is so strong, they could smell the body 1062 feet below the surface of the lake. The three dogs were on the rescue boat and alerted their handlers when they caught onto the scent. The body was recovered by Douglas County Sheriffs using the side-scan sonar.
When asked about their most impressive live recovery, Chris told us the story of a man who had gotten stuck following a drainage downstream trying to find grasshoppers while fishing. He was down there for 5-7 days, when Mika picked up his scent and he was able to be safely recovered by the rest of the team.
When asked how many hours per day or days per week the dogs train, Chris says that training is a lifestyle and the team is constantly working. The dogs are always working, even if they look like they’re sleeping, and will alert their handlers to sudden changes, even at home. To the dogs though, they love their jobs, and they firmly believe they’re having fun. We learned that it is legal to buy human bones in California, (Where from? We didn’t dare to ask!). Chris and Lisa will hide the bones for the dogs to find at home to keep training up. After every work day the dogs get to play hard with their handlers as a reward for a job well done.
They’re treat and toy motivated, just like any of our dogs, and the handlers always keep treats on hand. The treat rewards have to be more exciting than the find… which might be a tough sell for some cadaver dogs!
Sometimes when a SAR dog has a really long and tough day at work, but they don’t find any bodies, they’ll actually get sad and lose motivation. The handlers will secretly hide an alive person so that the dog gets to find someone. Everyone gets VERY excited about these (fake) finds!
We learned that during the World Trade Center recoveries, many of the SAR dogs were getting depressed not finding bodies, so the handlers would use the assistance of other humans to hide live people, as to boost morale amongst the dogs.
SAR dogs are trained to find things that don’t belong, and find things that we don’t see. We asked what the funniest thing was the dogs found, and it was a brown paper bag full of pornographic magazines under a rock! True story. Every year at the ski resorts the dogs find all kinds of stuff, like truck keys, wallets, GoPros, snowboards, and yes, even underwear.
They don’t teach their pups what they call ‘stupid pet tricks’, and Chris was once laughed out of the room by other handlers when she showed off that she taught Beaujet how to ‘shake hands’!
The gear that Chris and Lisa bring for their dogs when they’re working aren’t so different from what we need when we’re recreating, only SAR dogs need a LOT more water. We all know that dogs use their noses to search, but did you know that their sniffers work best when they’re wet? SAR dog handlers make sure to bring more than enough water to keep the dogs cool, as well as to keep their muzzle wet to work best.
Search and Rescue has the following tips for when you're going out in the backcountry with your dog:
BRING WATER: The amount of water they bring will vary - depending on the trail’s shade availability, how hot it is that day, and if there is running water the dogs can drink from. But they will always bring a dog bowl and at least three liters of water. If their dogs are feeling warm, they’ll also use the extra water to wet them down. With a heavy coat of fur, the temperature will always feel hotter for your dog. If you see your dog ‘shade hopping’ on the trail, it means he’s starting to get overheated. Stop and let them take an ample break, give them a ton of water, and make the decision whether you should continue or not. Always bring a water bowl for your dog as well.
BRING FOOD: Bring enough food and water, and then some. Bonking is real. Salty snacks help with dehydration.
BRING BOOTIES: Booties are an essential item to pack in the backpack as well. Hot, sharp rocks cause the majority of rescue calls for K9s in the backcountry. You don’t need to put the booties on for the start of the trail, but keep them in your pack for if your dog gets an injury. Your dog might be too heavy for you to carry down off of a mountain on your own.
BRING A MEDICAL KIT: Take inventory of your medical kit before you go out. You might have used up the last of your duct tape or ibuprofen on the last trip, and you don’t want to be caught out there with an empty kit. Make sure your kit contains super glue for instant stitches, duct tape and an emergency blanket.
Ensure you have enough supplies for your dog too, or carry a dog medkit as well.
BRING A MAP: And know how to use it. Do not rely on technology. Phones die, they get wet, and they most certainly lose service. Bring a compass and a paper map, and familiarize yourself with basic navigation skills.
PREPARE: Always let someone know where you’re going, and when to expect you back in service. If you do go missing, it'll save rescuers a ton of time when they have a known location they can start to search.
Check the weather before you go. Weather can change in an instant. Bring extra layers - exposure and hypothermia/hyperthermia are the leading causes of wilderness death. (Not dehydration!) Sweating all day, and then being in cold wet clothes when the sun goes down is not ideal.
Pack more than you need, and always bring a headlamp in case you’re out later than you expect.
STAY TOGETHER: If you’re in a group, do not separate. The summit is only half the journey. The mountain will still be there tomorrow.
And remember to have fun out there! Happy SAFE adventuring!