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First ever Sask. volunteer SAR K9 unit progresses with training

Search and Rescue Saskatchewan Association of Volunteers (SARSAV) canine teams could be seen in the Carnduff area, as well as at the Spruce Ridge and Estevan Comprehensive Schools’ grounds during late May.

ESTEVAN - The first in Saskatchewan volunteer search and rescue (SAR) canine unit came together in the southeast for training on May 28-29.

Search and Rescue Saskatchewan Association of Volunteers (SARSAV) canine teams could be seen in the Carnduff area, as well as at the Spruce Ridge and Estevan Comprehensive Schools’ grounds during that weekend. Eight members of various volunteer search and rescue chapters from across the province, led by instructor Dan Vas, came to Estevan to participate in rural and urban tracking training.

The group has been working with their dogs, learning to communicate and develop skills needed to partake in search and rescue operations if a need comes. It was brought together by Katia Bigney, South East Saskatchewan Search and Rescue (SESKSAR) chapter, an intermediate K9 handler, and Teresa Nahachewsky, Regina SAR, also an intermediate K9 handler, and consisted of Raelene Peet, Wood River SAR, intermediate K9 handler; Kathy Gollings, Meadow Lake SAR, intermediate K9 handler; Teri Lynn Van Parys, Parkland SAR, novice K9 handler; Louise Yates, Regina SAR, novice K9 handler; Laura Garvey, SESKSAR, novice K9 handler; and Leanne Strokov, SESKSAR, intermediate K9 handler.

The first day was dedicated to rural tracking, as canine teams were going through fields, bluffs, valleys, water, etc. For the second day, they switched to urban tracking, working in the areas where there are higher levels of contamination of human scents. To practise, a member would lay a track in an area with lots of smells, and the dog had to hold it and find an article(s) left by the human.

SARSAV K9 unit currently has 12 teams in total that have been training for almost a year. And some of the teams may be able to go through RCMP testing under their civilian canine search and rescue standards to get certified towards the end of this year or in the spring of 2023. 

"When they get called out to be on a search, we want them to be ready. We want them to be fully trained. And we want them to leave no doubt that they work that area to find the articles or human. This is not a sport. This is where potentially a life could be on the line. We can't have dogs that are not fully trained, so if it takes a little longer, we will have to do it that way," Vas said.

"Right now, we do have some dogs that are progressing very well. But we want to make sure that when we get ready for certification with the RCMP, they can be called out as soon as they get certified."

Getting a canine team to the certification level is a long process that takes a lot of dedication. Every week handlers get together virtually to learn more about training and share their progress. Bigney said that it takes about 10-20 hours of work per week per dog to teach, learn and implement the knowledge in a positive manner, working in any weather at any time of the day and any season.

"It is like starting out with the ABCs. And now they're learning how to write paragraphs. And finally, when they go for certification, they'll be ready to write a novel," Vas explained.

Besides virtual workshops and individual practices, teams go through a series of in-person training. Estevan's meet was the first one for this summer. It will be followed by sessions in Regina in June, North Battleford in August and Shaunavon in September, as the unit will further progress with rural and urban tracking.

The training process will culminate with certification whenever each team is ready to be tested.

"Dan [Vas] has made a proposal to the RCMP "F" Division at Regina if they would be prepared to test our intermediate dogs that are ready to be tested. And we've got an affirmative on that. But we have to make sure that at the end of our September training we have dogs that are ready," Bigney said. "It boils down to their progression between the [May] weekend and the September training. There will be a review. And if there are intermediate dogs that are ready, they will be submitted for the application that's required to be tested by the RCMP."

For the latest training session the focus was on tracking, but they also did mock obedience and agility tests. The three disciplines will later be tested by the RCMP along with canine-handler fitness and canine temperament.

On the second day of training, the teams ended up working in the rain, and while it might have added some discomfort for both dogs and handlers, it actually resulted in closer to a real-life emergency-learning environment.

"Some places [had a lot] of standing water, and that was very realistic of what we can expect," Vas said. "All dogs were able to complete their assignments. Deep water in the ground, three to four inches, made a big difference in terms of how the handlers had to approach the scenarios realizing that the scent would not be as easy to be found. But it's just made the handlers work a little harder mentally to be able to succeed and make their dog find the track and then find the articles. So that was a huge success."

He added that for dogs, water also added more work, but it was the humans' job to read their animals as they were trying to track and find articles, which sometimes went under the water.

"One of the things that we were practising was a team effort. We have to first analyze what the area brings to the whole picture. It makes us a better team when the human and the dog work together [for a positive] search outcome," Vas noted.

During the sessions in Estevan, novice dogs were learning the basics of tracking and doing shorter tracks, as they don't have the attention span of more advanced canines.

"If you want to think about the nose as a muscle, the more we exercise the stronger the muscle will get. And that's exactly the same thing with the nose. You want to build up endurance with the dog. Just like if you run too fast, you get tired, the nose muscles can get tired. So you build this up. At the same time, you're building the stamina as handlers are getting to read their dogs, they're learning the dogs' behaviours," Vas explained.

"Now the advanced dogs are working on things like sharper turns in the track and finding more articles. We are learning how to get our dog to react to the article [give handler an alert] so that we know it's there … Advanced dogs are also starting to learn patterning. So we will teach them their left and right so that when they are off-leash, we direct them," Nahachewsky added.

Once professional in tracking, dogs can find articles of any size dropped by humans way faster by the scent. Besides, they can sniff items in the dark and in hard to search areas.

Vas added that while it's a big job, training still has to be fun for both the dogs and the humans. The unit and canine teams have to have good chemistry and camaraderie to be a successful search dog group.

Bigney said that even though getting a dog up to the level required for search and rescue operations is a serious commitment and bringing a unit together was a big step as well, it was important for SARSAV and for her to get it going to fill the existing gap.

"It's a challenge for our community because in Saskatchewan we do not have any dogs certified by the RCMP canine search and rescue standards and criteria. And the RCMP represents the largest area that we would be dispatched to. And there are no civilian search and rescue dogs at this point to date that have been certified to serve our community," Bigney said.

Every handler of the SARSAV K9 unit has to be a member of any Saskatchewan SAR chapter and has to have their basic searcher training. Since SARSAV covers all of Saskatchewan, for meetings most canine teams travel long hours to get to the location, yet for the instructor, it's the longest commute, as Vas now resides in New Brunswick. The association pays for his flight, and he donates his services to ensure that Saskatchewan has a professionally trained canine civilian search and rescue unit, so that if someone goes missing, there would be the best resources available in all regions of the province.

"We're all in this big team effort," Vas said.