OSARC trains dogs and their humans for search and rescue missions
By Laurelle Walsh
Have you ever had that sinking feeling of being turned around in the woods? You most likely got out of your predicament without harm, perhaps by shouting for your friends, or by climbing to a high point and spotting something familiar. But did you ever consider who would come to find you if you were truly lost?
What would you think if the “person” who came to find you had a wet nose and a wagging tail?
In the Methow Valley and beyond, that’s highly likely. Okanogan Search and Rescue Canines (OSARC) is a highly trained, elite team of dogs and handlers who work under the direction of the sheriff’s office search and rescue coordinator, Chief Criminal Deputy Dave Rodriguez, and OSARC senior dog handler Vikki Buzzard.
Every year hunters, hikers, campers, rock climbers and even guys out cutting firewood get lost or injured in the Okanogan backcountry and require the services of Okanogan County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue teams — high-angle rescue, swiftwater rescue, ATV, snowmobile or search dogs — to bring them safely back to civilization.
“We call on the search dogs team for almost every search,” Rodriguez said. “Many times it’s a rescue [without a search] because we know the location of the injured party, but if so-and-so hasn’t come back to their hunting camp, we call out all our resources.”
Never play hide-and-seek with a dog
Search and rescue dogs use their noses to find missing people. They may be specially trained to find a body buried in an avalanche or under water, or to find cadavers after a disaster.
While a dog’s brain is only one-tenth the size of a human brain, the part that controls smell is 40 times larger than in humans. It is commonly estimated that humans have about 5 million scent detection cells while a larger working-breed dog is estimated to have 220 million olfactory sensory cells.
The dog/handler teams training with OSARC are learning to utilize the dogs’ natural air-scenting abilities to locate generic human scent within a large search area. They can perform their jobs during the day or night, in varied terrain, and during foul weather. They can even work in areas that have been “contaminated” by the scents of other searchers.
When Buzzard was first developing a search dog program for the county, she reached out to other canine search and rescue teams to learn what search strategy would be best for our area, she said.
Because of the vast areas of wilderness to cover here, Buzzard determined that air-scenting dogs would be more useful than tracking or trailing dogs.
Advantages of air-scenting
Tracking and trailing dogs work from the point the missing person was last seen, sniff an article of their clothing, and then work on-lead, nose to the ground, following the track the missing person has laid. The age of the track, weather, quality of the scent article, and contamination of the search area all impact the success of the tracking dog.
The air-scenting dog works off-lead, traveling into the wind with head raised, seeking to locate generic human scent. The dog “grids,” running back and forth, locating the missing person’s “scent cone,” which emanates from humans all the time.
“To a dog, we’re like Pig Pen from Charlie Brown,” said Buzzard, referring to the 40,000 “rafts” of skin cells people shed off their bodies every minute.
The air-scenting dog will range in and out of the scent cone, which is broader and fainter farther away from the source of the scent, getting narrower and stronger as the dog gets closer to the person.
“In my opinion, most dogs use a combination of [air scenting and tracking],” Rodriguez said. “A dog uses whatever presents itself stronger.”
For example, Rodriguez has observed a search dog start out with its nose to the ground, smelling where a person’s walked. “When it gets close, its nose comes up, its ears go back, and it starts air scenting,” he said.
Highly trained dogs may also be used to rule out the presence of a person in the search area with 95 percent assurance, Rodriguez said. “That’s the third level of search dog certification,” Rodriguez said. “Our team is working on getting a dog there before the end of summer.”
Dog and handler training
Training an air-scenting dog to locate a missing person and then lead its handler to him or her, incorporates activities dogs already love to do: use their nose, be with people and have a job.
“It’s all about the dog. We take an activity that they already love to do, and then add a command and reward the dog,” turning it into a fun game, Buzzard said.
On the other hand, the dog knows it is working, not playing, Buzzard said.
Buzzard invited the Methow Valley News to an OSARC training session at Loup Loup North Summit on a recent evening. Four dog/handler teams were there to practice search skills: Tim Priest with Rugger, Aaryn Peterson with Aspen, Jim Gregg with Stout, and Dan Smith with Calla.
OSARC meets twice a week to practice obedience, agility and search skills. Each team that day was presented with a similar, but unique, search problem, scaled to their level of training.
The organization currently has three teams at beginning levels, who will be testing for the first time this summer; two teams at the Level I Probationary Level; and one team at Level II — Limited Operational — that will be testing this summer for Level III, Fully Operational.
Peterson and her 8-year-old border collie, Aspen, began training with OSARC one year ago. Peterson describes Aspen as “a test case,” because her dog is older than the typical beginner.
At North Summit, with Aspen unable to see the setup of the search problem, Buzzard instructs another handler — the “subject” — to walk a certain distance away from the parking area and hide.
Peterson crouches next to Aspen, who is quivering with anticipation, whispers in her ear, “There’s somebody lost that needs our help,” and then shouts, “Find ’em.” Aspen barks, and takes off in the direction the subject traveled, weaving back and forth, making steady progress toward the hiding place, with Peterson and Buzzard following a short distance behind.
Search dogs are taught to return to their handler and signal that they’ve located someone, by nudging a rope dangling off the handler’s belt.
Aspen finds the hidden subject, but then stays near him, not returning to give Peterson, standing about 50 feet away, the signal. Buzzard quietly instructs Peterson to call Aspen back; she does, and Aspen returns to her owner and nudges the dangling rope with her nose.
Peterson excitedly gives the “re-find” command, “Show me,” and follows Aspen to the still-hidden subject. Aspen is rewarded with enthusiastic praise, treats, and a few minutes of play time with her favorite toy.
Buzzard debriefs the two handlers involved in the search problem, and suggests that she and Peterson were too close to Aspen when she made the find, perhaps causing the dog to decide the subject’s location was obvious, so she didn’t need to return and give the signal.
“If something goes wrong, you first have to ask yourself, ‘What did I do wrong?’” said Buzzard.
Search dogs must be at least 12 months old, be in good health and physical condition, and possess a calm, confident disposition, according to OSARC’s training standards. They must not display aggression toward people or other dogs.
Handlers must be up to date in first aid/CPR and canine first aid, be proficient in radio communication procedures and wilderness navigation, and possess basic knowledge of crime scene procedures, search and rescue techniques, and scent theory. In addition, handlers must be willing to devote years of training before achieving operational status, volunteering their time and equipment, with no monetary compensation.
“While [search dog] training is tons of fun, it’s not a club or an informal training group,” said Peterson. “It’s serious business that requires commitment and a lot of intellectual, emotional, and physical work … and a willingness to put yourself out there in bad conditions and on holiday weekends when we’d all rather be doing something else. We also all have full-time jobs and other responsibilities, and it simply amazes me how dedicated this group is to the training.”
A remarkable partnership
“I know for a fact that Aspen and I would not have made it this far in our training if not for Vikki’s years of experience and direction,” Peterson said of the group’s founder, trainer and senior dog handler.
Vikki Buzzard and her husband, sheriff’s deputy Ottis Buzzard, “are the linchpins of Okanogan County Search and Rescue,” Rodriguez said. “There is an unending list of things they can do … they’re also good at teaching those skills and working with people.”
The couple have been involved in search and rescue for over two decades. In her other life, Vikki Buzzard is a paramedic with Aero Methow Rescue Service, and in charge of search and rescue operations there. “My true love is wilderness medicine,” she said. “I had always hoped to get a dog to do rescue work, and when I was done with college and settled, I could finally get a dog.”
She got Jobe, a female Rottweiller — Buzzard’s favorite breed — and the two of them began training in 2001, alongside Elaine Marquez, who had experience training avalanche rescue dogs for the Crystal Mountain ski patrol.
After around two years of search training, when Jobe was almost 3 years old, Buzzard received a call from Rodriguez that a man in his 70s had been missing since the night before, and after a daylong search, the sheriff’s department had located his car. Rodriguez sent Buzzard and Jobe to the scene before any other searchers were called.
“I let her go, and I was amazed that she scent discriminated on her own,” Buzzard recalls. “She did so much more than I had trained her to do.”
Jobe began gridding back and forth down the road the way they had come, Buzzard in pursuit, until the dog reached a group of deputies on the road, waiting to begin their search. “Everyone kept saying it would never work; if you find the car, you’ll find the missing man,” recalls Buzzard. “It turned out he was over a mile from his car when we found him, 30 minutes later, in a ravine.
“Dogs don’t rationalize,” Buzzard continued. “People will look at the terrain and think, ‘There’s no way someone would go down there.’ For a dog, if that’s where the scent is taking them, that’s where they go.”
Jobe went around every deputy on the road and kept going, Buzzard said. The dog found the missing man’s cane, then suddenly left the road and picked up speed, down into the ravine. Jobe found a glove, kept going and found the man’s wallet. A few minutes later, she found his hearing aid.
Soon, Jobe had found the man, sitting with his back to them, unable to hear anyone’s calls. “Jobe went up to him and licked him on the face,” Buzzard recalls, laughing. “The poor man was scared to death. He figured he had survived a night in the woods only to be licked to death by a Rottweiller.”
It was the first official canine search and rescue find in the county, Buzzard said.
Jobe was dual trained in wilderness and avalanche rescue, and learned to ride a snowmobile, a chair lift, and “hot load” onto a running helicopter. After about four years, Buzzard and Rodriguez developed an official training program and started bringing other dog/handler teams in to start search training with OSARC.
A bond of trust
Buzzard and Jobe had “several impressive finds,” including one avalanche find, during their years as a team, Deputy Rodriguez recalls.
Buzzard lost Jobe to bone cancer two years ago at age 11. “She was the best partner I’ve ever had,” Buzzard said. Though her hands are full right now training six dog/handler teams, Buzzard said she is looking for her own puppy to start training again with the other handlers.
“The last two years we’ve developed into a really solid group. It’s the right mix of people who are able to fully commit to training. We’re kind of a misfit family,” Buzzard said.
“People are doing it, God bless them, but we are trying to run a professional program with all volunteers,” laments Rodriguez, who has struggled to finance the county’s search and rescue operations since federal funding for the department was cut two years ago.
OSARC receives no funding at all, and relies on donations to buy supplies. Recently, a bake sale at Hank’s Harvest Foods netted $815 toward purchasing search dog vests.
“We ask a lot out of a few individuals,” said Buzzard, “but it’s a lifestyle too. Training, working, and building a partnership with your dog on a daily basis builds a bond of trust like no other relationship in your life.”
For more information about OSARC, contact Vikki Buzzard at 997-4013, or Dave Rodriguez at (509) 422-7210.
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