Exercising search and rescue skills

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By Kirsten Laskey

The dogs trotted around as if they were  warming up for the task ahead of them. Clancey, a coon hound and Osita, a Bouvier des Flandres, seemed excited as they sniffed the ground and the air. Somewhere in the forest surrounding the Pajarito Mountain Ski Area, people were lost and last Saturday morning, the two dogs, along with three volunteers from Mountain Canine Corps, a nonprofit search and rescue organization, prepared to find them.

The staff member at the command center provided the team with details of the situation. A group of four hikers had left at 1 p.m. the day before to go on a hike. Their plan was to be back that evening but they never returned. Search and rescue got the call at 11 a.m. about the lost hikers. They didn’t know where they went and things were looking dire because one of the hikers had epileptic seizures.

There was, however, some hope. A small plastic bag containing socks was put under Clancey’s nose and with this scent, he began to track and the others started to follow.

There are two types of search and rescue dogs, said Marsha Falco, who owns Osita and is part of Mountain Canine Corps.

One is a tracker, which follows one particular scent and the other is an air-scent dog, which will pick up on any human smell.

The dogs were not doing all the work; the team of volunteers walked along a trail, keeping in radio contact with each other and incident command staff.

They interviewed hikers and bikers along the trail of any information about the lost hikers and studied the dogs’ habits that might reveal where the missing people were.

The excursion on July 11 was a test - a practice session for both humans and dogs to develop their skills.

“Our goal is to be mission ready so when a hiker is lost, we are ready to go out and search for them,” Falco said.

President of the local Search and Rescue David Dejong, added, “In this (exercise) we’re training the dogs to track and air scent. The benefit of this mission – a longer track – is it tests the dogs’ the concentration and endurance.”

The Search and Rescue team hosts these drills weekly, usually one on Thursday and another Saturday. A few members become “lost” while another group head out to find them.

It is not a contest to see who finds the people first, Falco said. “It’s not about me and Osita finding the person,” she said, “it’s about getting the person found. We all work together as a team.”

To get on the team takes some work. Falco explained both people and dogs go through training. She said training the dogs starts by leaving a scent. If the dog follows the scent, they are awarded with a treat or toy. As they progress, there are less treats and more distance covered in following the scent. The dogs also have to pass a mission readiness.

“You just got to trust your dog,” Falco said.

During the exercise on July 11, Falco showed a lot of faith in Osita. Whenever, the dog would divert off the trail, Falco was right behind her. Also, when Osita located a hiker strolling along the dirt path, Falco awarded her with a can of Fancy Feast, which Osita merrily licked at.

Search and Rescuers are required to take a field certification test, be able to use a compass and map and have the right equipment.

Currently, there are two-three dogs that are trained to follow air scents and five dogs that are trackers on the team.

Additionally, there are 23 members in the organization.  

Falco explained she joined because, “I thought it was a way to give back to the community.”

This partnership between man and his best friend has been successful, Falco said, but she did offer tips to prevent getting lost in the first place.

These include letting people know where you are going, hiking with a group of people and not alone, bringing water, not splitting up from the group and taking a whistle.

The main thing, Falco said, is let people know where you are going.

If you should get lost, “hug a tree,” she said. Sit down, and stay there. “We will find you,” Marsha added.

If people keep moving, it makes it harder to locate them.

The “lost” group of hikers seemed to have followed this advice. The team found the group residing at a campground.

Mission accomplished.

For more information about the Mountain Canine Corps, visit www.mc2sar.org.