Search and Rescue Missions with Dogs in Larimer County

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Colorado is filled with beautiful terrain that’s so enticing to explore, but it can be a bit dangerous – especially when the weather changes on a dime. In Larimer county we have a great search and rescue team staffed by dedicated volunteers ready to help in times of emergency and get people home safely. Some volunteers also have amazing, wonderful relationships with a trained search and rescue dog, and the pair act as a powerful symbiotic team.

This week I chatted with Jill Reynolds, an extremely knowledgeable canine massage therapist and owner of Canine Massage of the Rockies who’s been volunteering as a member of the Larimer County Search and Rescue (LCSAR) for the last five years. She is rated as a search leader with Search and Rescue Dogs of Colorado (SARDOC) and is a certified wilderness air scent handler, not to mention a wealth of information!

Types of Search and Rescue Dogs

Not only does Reynolds regularly go out on search and rescue missions, but she’s personally trained her rescue dog Skid, a red Australian shepherd, as a trail and air scent search and rescue dog. Wind scents are Skid’s specialty. He puts his nose in the air, searching for scent in the wind to detect clues about where a person is now.

“The trick is to walk in grid patterns perpendicular to the the direction of the wind, nose into the wind, to get the latest scent because the wind direction changes so frequently in the mountains,” says Reynolds. Skid is trained to track the scent from an article of personal significance, or if there is no scent article, he alerts Reynolds to any fresh human scent he may notice.

Search and rescue dogs can also be trail dogs that track where a person has been based on their last known location. Trail dogs have their nose to the ground to establish the direction of travel which is really important in a search, but it can be hard when there are no scent articles from the missing parties to lead the search, according to Reynolds.

Lastly, the dogs can be trained for Human Remains Detection or (HRD), which is often a necessity once the search is two to three days in, says Reynolds. They practice with CPR dummies and a source of human tissue to get the dogs used to the experience.

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How Search and Rescue Missions Work

Reynolds says the busiest times of year for search and rescue missions is between Memorial and Labor Day when Colorado has a lot of tourists. Fall is also another really busy time, with hunters and mushroom vetters that might get caught in some unexpected weather or get lost.

“We dont always know if we will be deployed, says Reynolds, “so we keep all our stuff in the car, including snowshoes, avalanche beacons, gear for the dogs, etc.” The Larimer County Sheriff’s Department alerts volunteers if they are needed on a rescue mission.

The search manager talks to the reporting party, gathers maps and develops a plan and search strategy, giving an assigned area to each volunteer. Teams go out in pairs; a navigator always travels with a dog handler. Each team copies their assigned areas onto a GPS and the navigator makes sure they stay inside the boundaries of the search (that are usually off trail), while the handler “reads” their dog.

“The whole time the dog is giving you information, “ says Reynolds. “Where are they going? When do their ears perk up? What is their body language? When are they showing and losing interest? The team marks places on the map that reflect these pieces of information and once a search area is clear, they report the details back to the search manager.” Then, all the clues from all the dogs are compiled and cross-referenced to put together the “story” of the missing party. “Areas where there were no hits are just as important as ones with detailed information, as they help refine the search area,” adds Reynolds.

In order for the dogs to be in tip top shape, volunteers dedicate a lot of time to train the dogs, in addition to going out on search party missions. “Dog trainers do this every weekend. I admire their willingness to be of service to help others,” says Reynolds. “All volunteers have to pay their own expenses, and do this out of pure passion.”

“This kind of work with your dog enables you to build a relationship and rapport this is just so amazing; so symbiotic. You become attuned to each other on a very deep level, with every nuance of the dog’s expression a very clear communication. Skid and I have come to know each other in a way I’ve never experienced. What he can do is beautiful, and I’m constantly amazed by him,” says Reynolds.


Why Skid is Such a Special Dog

Reynolds got Skid at a time in her life when she had just lost her previous Australian shepherd, her favorite breed of dog, very suddenly. She was a teacher for special needs kids, taking them out on adventure programs (skiing, bicycle tours, climbing, outside learning) for over 25 years, and her last dog was a big part of teaching all her students.

Reynolds wasn’t sure if she would ever find another dog to fill that special space, but got a lead on some Australian shepherd puppies through a contact on the search and rescue team she’d met while volunteering to do canine massage for rescue dogs.

After spending a few afternoons with this new litter of puppies, it was obvious Skid and Reynolds were a perfect match. The breeder was more than happy to connect them, especially after learning Reynolds wanted to train her next puppy as a search and rescue dog.

Reynolds started training Skid at eight weeks, and she had the kids in her class help pick a his name. Skid was an amazingly fast learner and was certified by the time he was a year and a half, when it normally takes three to four years.

“It’s what he’s always wanted to do. When the vest is on he’s down to business and he knows it’s time to work. Skid is friendly and outgoing and loves being around kids. We do lots of public education programs with local kid’s organizations, and he is a fantastic therapy dog for special ed and emotionally challenged kids. On a recent trip to a kindergarten class, he greeted each child separately as they walked in the door, just like he was already making sure he counting them so he could take care of them,” says Reynolds.

If you know of any schools or kids organizations that would love to have Reynolds and Skid stop by for an educational session, or if you want to help train the search and rescue dogs by hiding so they can practice finding you (they learn best through repetition) you can contact Reynolds.

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  • Fresh Air Fort Collins

    So. so. adorable.