Cochrane team part of international organization
Amid considerable noise and commotion of a large crowd at the Calgary Pet Expo, Juno — a three-year-old border collie cross — stares intently at a treat in Karen Somerville's hand.
"A herd of elephants could come walking by and she's not going to take her focus away from that treat," Somerville says. "That focus makes her very, very trainable."
Training is something Juno and Somerville do well together. The pair are part of the Cochrane chapter of the Canadian Search and Disaster Dogs Association (CASDDA) — a group that trains dogs for rescue and recovery missions.
Search and rescue dogs are trained for a wide range of activities, including looking for people who are lost in the wilderness or trapped in rubble due to natural disasters. The dogs are trained to detect, track and respond to human scent.
Dogs internationally certified
The Cochrane team is relatively new, setting up operation 18 months ago. Juno is the team's first dog to be successfully trained and certified as a search and rescue dog.
Somerville says dogs trained through CASDDA go through a rigorous series of national and international certifications. Members of CASDDA help out in disaster situations around the world.
Currently CASDDA has three teams based in Alberta and two in British Columbia.
Although relatively new, Somerville says the Cochrane team will be certifying more dogs in September.
"Once that happens, we will be able to do more dispatches," Somerville says.
Team seeks highly motivated dogs
Somerville says the dogs best suited for search and rescue work are those with a "high drive" personality.
"They don't always make the best family pets," Somerville says. "But they make excellent working dogs."
The commitment level of the handler is just as important as the personality of the dog says Somerville.
"We train our dogs, so we will have people approach us who are interested. We evaluate both the dog and the handler," Somerville says.
"If everybody passes muster, we have a three month probationary period. Then we continue with training the handler in how to train their dog."
The training requires considerable commitment from both the handler and the dog.
"It becomes a bit of a way of life for people," Somerville says. "But the dogs love it."
AJ Thorsten joined the team six months ago and has been training a dog she adopted from a shelter in northern Alberta. She says the most rewarding aspect of the training has been the close relationship it has facilitated with her dog.
"It's really time consuming, but very rewarding," Thorsten says. "Training a working dog is very different than training a pet. It's a big effort for us both."
Thorsten says that while she and her dog may take the first level certification test in September, she wants to make sure the timing is right.
"She's still a little bit shy, so I am not in a hurry," Thorsten says. "I want her to be successful. "
Learning experience for dog and handler
For team member Vanessa Hands, the learning curve required to train her dog in search and rescue techniques has been steep.
"This is the first dog I have ever had," Hands says. "So learning to train both a pet and a working dog has been overwhelming at times."
Like Somerville and Thorsten, the dog Hands is training was rescued from a shelter. Although the training process has been a learning experience for both her and her dog, Hands says the pair are progressing well.
"He's a big and strong dog. It's been challenging, but I have found a training method that works for him.
"The things you can do with these dogs are incredible."
International training opportunity
Somerville and Hands, along with their dogs, will head to Europe in May. They will spend several weeks training in Hungary, Croatia and the Czech Republic. The trip will provide the handlers and their dogs a unique learning opportunity.
"In Europe there are all sorts of search dog teams," Somerville says. "We don't have that here."
"It's a chance for us to go and see all that they do in Europe, and to train with them. So it's a great opportunity."
Although the time and costs required for things like training and travel can be quite high, Somerville says it is all worth it.
"We are a non-profit, and it's all out of pocket. So it's a big commitment."
Besides offering financial assistance, Somerville says there are additional ways those who are interested can help the team out.
"We are always looking for new venues to train for building searches," Somerville says. "We are looking for storage yards and similar places where we can take the dogs to train."
They are also looking for people willing to help out with one very important aspect of the dogs' training.
"We are looking for 'victims' to hide out for our dogs," Somerville says.
But anybody volunteering to hide need not worry that they will be overlooked — the dogs are, says Somerville "really good."
"They will always find you."
- By Karry Taylor