For K-9s, it’s a game; For we humans, it’s serious

Sometimes you can just tell someone loves their job.

You notice little things, like a spring in their step, unabashed affection for the tools of the trade and eagerness to jump right in and get to work.

….there’s also the impatient whining and the tail wagging to tip you off.

One thing was readily apparent meeting the members of Northwest Pennsylvania K-9 Search and Rescue, the dogs on the team love this. In fact, their human partners’ enthusiasm pales beside the passion of the dogs.

It’s understandable, the people understand the life-and-death nature of what they do. For, the dogs however, it falls somewhere between work and play.

“To them. it’s a glorified game of hide and seek,” noted team member Shane Hale. “And they’re so much better at it than we are.”

Getting that good takes training.

The search dogs spend approximately two years in training before they’re field ready and they never really stop practicing. Two years, to a dog, is a dedication of a significant portion of your life.

They also start young. While the team won’t turn away older dogs and their human partners, they said it’s best to start training dogs before they reach two years of age.

“It takes about a year or two to train the dogs and train the people,” founding team member LuAnn Gatte said.

“More the people,” Hale added.

Dogs must have a Canine Good Citizen certification from the American Kennel Club, an obedience certification. Dogs must be well-socialized with people and other dogs as well, and that’s just the pre-requisites before search training.

Training doesn’t stop at two years though, it’s a process that never really ends. The team trains every Sunday for approximately six hours, although they hold human-only skills training sessions. In addition, dogs and their partners train at home on their own for four hours or more per-week.

“It’s a very time intensive, expensive endeavor,” Gatte said. “But it’s all worth it. we try to be very well rounded in our training to be prepared. We bring in a lot of different presenters.”

Co-founder Michelle Eaton agreed, “You train and you train and you’re on call 24-7. You take it very seriously.”

Human team members are certified in CPR, first aid, National Incident Management System (NIMS) and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) field team and leadership.

Canine members specialize in one of three types of searches and are International Police Work Dog Association (IPWDA) certified.

Area searches consist of sending a dog out to find anyone in a given area; trailing searches consist of finding or tracking a particular person by scent; and, human remains detection searches are exactly what the name implies, finding cadavers, and can be done on the water as well.

The team is all volunteer, and said people are surprised to find out where they get the highly trained dog members.

They find them at home.

“Our K-9s are trained but when they go home they are our pets,” Eaton said. “The bond between your dog and you isn’t just like a pet. It’s like a partner It’s much deeper than just a pet.”

“People ask where do they go when they aren’t working,” team member Audrey Cline noted. “They go home with us.”

The arrangement is a reflection of where the team recruits from; everywhere.

Human members hale from across the region, most are from the Erie and Venango County area or the Titusville area, but Warren County has at least one member in Cline. The humans are all volunteers and come from all walks of life, from emergency services backgrounds to software engineers and educators, and dogs can be of any breed, though most are larger breeds and a high-energy personality is needed. Currently, there are 17 humans and 12 dogs on the team.

“It’s very diverse backgrounds,” Gatte noted. “Most people coming in have a dog already. You want to do something in the woods. You want to help. You want to get outside.”

“It’s interesting how all the backgrounds come together,” Cindy Davenport, who joined the team recently, said. “I was really surprised by all the components when I came on board.”

“Everybody brings something different to it,” Hale agreed. “You have a whole toolbox there.”

Individuals interested in being a part of the team can contact the group by e-mail at info@nwpak9sar.org. Interested individuals do not necessarily need to have a dog.

Where the dogs come from has also led to some controversy.

“There was a lot of flack after 9/11 about putting your dogs in harm’s way,” Eaton said. “But they love it. It gives them a job. They come from, in the wild, a pack mentality where everyone has a job. This is their pack.”

“They’re high-energy dogs,” Cline said. “Without this to do they’d be a terror to live with. This gives them a way to use up some energy.”

Not only does the job give the dogs a needed outlet, it gives them one they’re good at.

“A lot of people think, with all the new technology, you can find people easily,” Eaton said. “With a dog you can clear a large area quickly rather than bringing in hundreds of emergency services personnel. It’s a matter of using your resources wisely.”

“There’s a lot of science on search and rescue,” Gatte noted.

The team gets plenty of use.

They are dispatched out of the Crawford County 911 center, but provide services throughout a region including Crawford, Erie, Forest, Mercer, Venango and Warren Counties. The team is dispatched between 20 and 30 times per-year, they said.

This utilization is a result of a concentrated effort to reach out to local emergency services. Gatte said the group does numerous presentations every year on what they have to offer.

They also do outreach to the community in general, including presenting a “Hug-a-Tree” program for children on what to do if you get lost in the woods.

All this exposure serves another purpose, tearing down stereotypes.

“A lot of these breeds are large and those with a reputation of being dangerous,” Eaton said, noting the team includes German shepherds and pit bulls in its ranks. “This teaches people that it’s not the breed, it’s the way you raise them. It gives people exposure. It’s great to show kids… this big scary dog isn’t really scary.”

For more information on Northwest Pennsylvania K-9 Search and Rescue, visit www.nwpak9sar.org.