Dogs play important roles in our lives. They’re our companions, our protectors—and sometimes our rescuers. For search and rescue (SAR) dogs and their handlers, life is full of preparation, training, and a lot of waiting. But when an emergency happens, their special set of skills can give a scary situation a happy ending.
Time is a critical component of a successful rescue mission. Handlers have to be ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. Often the time of day or night and the weather conditions are challenging enough. If the SAR team can arrive on scene and get to work before scents begin to dissipate or are contaminated, they have a much better chance of locating the person in need.
The Deschutes County Search and Rescue K-9 team and the Mt. Bachelor Avalanche Rescue Dogs are often called in to assist with rescues in the area. The SAR K-9 team uses their dogs’ superior sense of smell to locate lost or missing persons. Their acute scenting ability catalogues and recalls scent profiles. To successfully complete a mission, there are different types of skills SAR dogs learn and use.
Tracking or trailing dogs work with their nose to the ground to follow human scent. Air-scent dogs work with their nose in the air, picking up scents carried on air currents. They work to find a scent’s origin and point of highest concentration. Avalanche dogs search for the scent of humans buried beneath up to 15 feet of snow.
Mt. Bachelor has its own team of avalanche rescue dogs. The dogs, referred to as avy dogs, are based at Mt. Bachelor Ski Resort to support the mountain and surrounding backcountry.
When most people think of an avalanche dog, they often imagine a St. Bernard. But times have changed and so have the dogs. Matt Baldwin, training supervisor for Mt. Bachelor Ski Patrol, explained there’s a broad spectrum of dogs used today.
“We look for size, because we have to be able to handle and pick them up to ride on snowmobiles, helicopters, and snowcats. A 130-pound dog is too big; 50 pounds or less is good. At Mt. Bachelor, we have black or golden retrievers. The Lab disposition is good, especially for their work with school groups and guests. They’re incredible athletes and working dogs,” Baldwin explained.
Mt. Bachelor’s dog handlers are all volunteers. The dogs are family pets, owned by patrollers, although Mt. Bachelor pays for pet insurance. The avy dogs are staged around the resort, so they’re ready to deploy.
“We sell T-shirts for their dog food and training certifications that we travel to. We like to see them as our backup insurance, after ski patrollers have done all they can do,” added Baldwin. “Most of the work they do up here is all avalanche training.”
Baldwin’s avy dog Wyatt retired last year at 11 years old. He was deployed twice for an active search. “He started as a puppy, riding around in my backpack,” Baldwin related. “Now he’s a full-time PR dog. It depends on the dog how long they’ll be in service.”
Baldwin says one of the avy dogs’ favorite training activities is the otter slide. They lie down on their backs and slide down the hill. “They’re trained like they’re going sledding. To them it’s just play.”
Wyatt has a few funny quirks. “He loves to chase ravens,” Baldwin shared, laughing. “Any raven he sees flying he goes after. He also loves chasing tubers in the tube park. He would howl his head off all the way up the chairlift, just losing it because he was so excited.”
Whether they’re playing, training, or on a rescue, staying safe is paramount for everyone involved.
“When the dogs run with us, we use protective skiing or safe travels practices. We put them in between our legs so the dog is protected from other skiers and boarders. It keeps them safe and under control. You don’t want a guest to collide with a dog,” Baldwin noted.
Baldwin says they are always looking for the public to help with training scenarios. “We bury people in little snow caves to simulate being caught in an avalanche. We look for volunteers to be buried in small spaces. They can talk to people at the top of Pine Martin lift, ski patrol dispatch, to see how they can help out. Usually we schedule it out, but on slow days we could use volunteers to drill the dogs. We do two to three drills per dog per week. It’s a fun experience to have a dog come dig you out,” he shared.
The Deschutes County SAR K-9 team trains several days a week independently, and as a team four to six hours per week. Like the Mt. Bachelor avy dogs, years of training are required for dogs and handlers before they become certified K-9 volunteers.
SAR K-9 team coordinator Joe Stacks has been team lead on some important searches, including the recent search for a one-year-old baby left in the woods. A K-9 patrol unit and five SAR dogs took part in the successful search.
There are seven dogs in the SAR K-9 unit: a border collie, a German shepherd, a golden retriever, Chesapeake Bay retrievers, a Brittany spaniel, and a Doberman. SAR volunteers come in after a scene is considered safe for the dogs and their handlers. Multiple dogs are brought in because they can tire quickly during a search.
“When they breathe heavily, their ability to sense odor is diminished and they can’t pick up as much of the scent,” said Stacks from the Deschutes County SAR headquarters in Bend.
Lt. Bryan Husband, the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office SAR coordinator, said they do an annual recruitment for people interested in volunteering with Search and Rescue.
“But you really have to let people know that it’s not a quick process to become a certified K-9 volunteer. It’s years of dedi- cated training and ongoing and routine training for both handlers and the dogs. To be a good working team, there has to be constant reinforcement of the training points,” Husband said.
There are 125 SAR volunteers and another 15 to 20 resource people who specialize in K-9s. Deschutes County SAR has a pool of six handlers and seven dogs. SAR K-9 handlers are familiar with rescue disciplines. “Anyone who joins our team has to go through the SAR Academy and be certified in related fields like wilderness survival, navigation, search techniques, and CPR,” said Husband.
A bluebird day can turn into a snowstorm. It’s essential to be prepared, on the mountain and especially in the backcountry. Lt. Husband says if you’d like to avoid becoming the focus of a SAR mission, you must be prepared and proficient in wilderness survival techniques. Have extra clothes, shelter, food and water, and a first-aid kit, as well as a GPS and phone with extra batteries and a source of fire—all of these will help if you get into trouble. If you can, call or text 911.
But if you ever do need help in the wilderness, a wet nose and kind doggie eyes will be the best view you will ever see.