|Plumas County Search and Rescue K-9 team members have a combined total of more than 26 years in the field. From left: Georgia Knutsen and Ty, Lori Powers and Moxie, and Annie Kreth with Sparkle and Fred. Photo submitted|
Work for a K-9 search and rescue dog begins at the young age of 8 to 10 weeks and can continue, dependent upon the individual dog, from age 5 to 10 year..
“The dogs best suited to K-9 search and rescue are those with a hunting instinct. The four most popular breeds are border collie, Labrador, golden retriever and the German shepherd,” said Plumas County Search and Rescue K-9 handler Georgia Knutsen.
Knutsen, a Lake Almanor resident, is part of a three-handler sub-team that also includes Amie Kreth and Lori Powers, both of Portola.
“The purposes of the dog teams are to primarily search for persons who are lost or drowned. We currently have one dog certified for water and one almost certified,” she said.
Dogs are used in water rescues because of their highly developed sense of smell. They are able to detect the scent of a person underwater.
|“If we didn’t love it we wouldn’t do it — all the hours and money, I can’t think of a better way to spend it.” Georgia Knutsen, Plumas County Search and Rescue K-9 handler|
“Most of our searches are of the area type. We know someone is lost in a given area so we send the dog and the handler out to find the person.”
“For instance, in January 2012, we had a person lost on the Pacific Crest Trail. We sent out two dogs and handlers and they found the missing man. He was OK and that’s the way we like them,” Knutsen said.
She said Search and Rescue gets 40 – 50 calls in a year and they can be about anything.
“As part of the search team we, as handlers, do rescues as well as searches. This past April 27, the entire team was called to Rich Bar on Highway 70 to locate and retrieve a body that had been spotted in the river. The following day we had training and then we were called out because the drowning victim’s car had been spotted,” she said.
Training is mandatory
The three K-9 handlers of Plumas County Search and Rescue are mission ready and members of the California Rescue Dog Association.
“We have each had to pass a series of tests. Through this organization we have to know how to handle a crime scene, various knots that can be used in water or over the side of a mountain. We have to know how to use a GPS, map and compass. We also take classes in man tracking,” Knutsen said.
Like their handlers, the dogs have to be certified. They have to demonstrate they can find a living person and a cadaver. They also have to find one to three subjects in a 120-acre zone.
“The challenge for the dog is to find the person and then come back to us to tell us they have a find. They then must lead us back to the subject,” she said.
Obedience training is one of the test components.
“They also have to pass obedience testing. It is so they will sit and stay, down and stay and they must be friendly with dogs and people,” Knutsen added.
Agility testing is also a major part of the certification. The dogs must be able to crawl under low objects, walk on planks and walk and balance on uneven surfaces, such as piles of rubble.
“It usually takes 1-1/2 years of testing before the dog is certified for search and rescue,” Knutsen said.
The dogs must then be recertified for search and rescue every two years.
Learning the job
Most handlers begin to work with their dogs at 8 to 10 weeks of age and start by socializing the K-9 to other dogs and people.
“This phase of training is ongoing. We are always socializing, as the dogs need to be comfortable around children and older people,” Knutsen said.
At about 10 weeks of age the handlers start to play games with their dogs.
“It must be a game so the dogs love the activity. The first game is for them to find a designated person. If they find the person they receive a reward of a food or toy,” she said.
At approximately 3 months of age the dogs begin to learn that finding a person might result in a treat.
Knutsen explained how the game is played and progresses.
“In playing this first game two persons are stationed outside. They each call the dog’s name and provide a reward when the dog responds. This game advances when one of the persons begins to hide behind an object, such as a tree,” she said.
The search becomes more complex when the hiding person moves farther and farther away and creates a larger search pattern.
“As the dog’s education continues the amount of acreage used in grid searches increases. We start small because we always want them to succeed,” she added.
A labor of love
Individually handlers spend two or more hours a day, spread throughout the day in small intervals, socializing and training their dogs.
The handlers also do formal training as a group two days a week plus the one Saturday a month when they and their K-9 partners train with Plumas County Search and Rescue as a whole.
Local K-9 handlers are an all-volunteer group who personally purchase their dogs and are responsible for food, veterinary and other related expenses.
They must supply their own equipment and pay for any transportation expenses related to travel for training and official search and rescue callouts, which can total 300 – 400 miles on their personal vehicles during one weekend search.
“If we didn’t love it we wouldn’t do it — all the hours and money, I can’t think of a better way to spend it,” Knutsen said.
Knutsen, aside from being a dog trainer and handler, is assigned a special role within the team. As the technical support team member she is responsible for GPS, maps and compasses for the team and radio communications with the search base.
She must recertify on these skills every two years as well as prepare her dog.
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