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Special Achievers: Search and Rescue Dogs Ontario

By Linda Cole

Dave Walker and his team of professional humans and dogs make up an all volunteer, nonprofit Search & Rescue (SAR) group, assisting police agencies at no cost to them. The Search and Rescue Dogs Ontario are members of the Hamilton Police Service, and assist in ground search and rescue operations wherever they are needed. I spoke with Dave recently to learn more about this amazing team that’s sponsored by the CANIDAE Special Achievers Program.

The SAR team is made up of four Dutch Shepherds – Raina, Bliss, Nico and Ace – and four handlers, plus Dave. Several of the dogs were rescued or adopted from homes where they weren't wanted, and two puppies are in training to replace two retired SAR dogs. Dutch Shepherds (herding dogs from the Netherlands) are used because they have the work ethic of the German Shepherd along with the extremely high drive of the Belgian Malinois. The team is on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and has been with the Hamilton Police since 2004. 

I asked Dave how long the team had been feeding CANIDAE to the dogs, and if it made a difference in their health. “Several of our dogs have been on CANIDAE for over 5 years with great results,” he said. “For almost a year now all of our dogs (4 working dogs, 2 puppies and 2 retired dogs) have been switched to CANIDAE after we saw the great overall health and energy level of the dogs that were on it. CANIDAE All Life Stages dog food has proven to be a good food for our SAR Canine teams. As their ages range from puppies to current working dogs (5-7 yrs.) and our retired dogs (10 yrs. old), the All Life Stages has worked very well for us.”

I asked if he thought it helped the SAR dogs do their job and he replied, “The tremendous stress that this work sometimes puts on the dogs because of the terrain, extreme temperatures and the physical endurance they need to do the work, makes CANIDAE a great choice for us. It gives all of our dogs, no matter what age, the required nutrition to remain healthy in this challenging work. CANIDAE food keeps their energy levels at top performance.”

It takes two years (over 1800 hours) to train a SAR dog, and over 1,000 hours a year to maintain their training. The Ontario SAR team trains every Saturday for 8-10 hours and every Wednesday night for 4-6 hours, and they do this 52 weeks a year. The dogs live with their handlers, but not as family pets. They are working dogs, and developing a strong bond is essential to work efficiently as a team.

Because the search area can be city, rural, water or wilderness, and the work can be in all kinds of weather and terrain, the SAR dogs and their handlers have to be in excellent physical condition. Human members are trained in first aid, CPR, AED (automated external defibrillator), wilderness survival, K9 emergency first aid, man tracking training (ability to track people without a dog), lost person behavior, water searching (drowning victims), search patterns, canine behavior training, map and compass orientation, GPS training, clue/evidence detection/preservation and night navigation as well as other training. As you can see, the SAR team needs extensive knowledge to do this important work.

Each dog and handler must pass mandatory certification every year in: Ontario Provincial Police Civilian SAR Dog Standards, a 2 day certification that only a handful of dogs pass; United States Police Canine Association Cadaver Certification in Michigan, a 2 day certification; Standard First Aid/CPR; Map and Compass Orientation to Provincial/Municipal Police standards.

Each dog is trained to track footprints, search the air for human scent, on and off lead obedience, agility training (confidence training for different types of obstacles they will encounter), building search, article search and cadaver search. Each task has a specific command.

This is a demanding job for the dogs and their handlers. I asked Dave what qualities he looks for in a handler. “Sense of giving back to the community, previous volunteer experience – doing good things for no pay. A supportive family, strong character, self-starter, good people skills, good leadership skills, and a team player.” As for the SAR dogs, “They need to be confident, but know their place in the handler's pack. They need to have a keen sense of smell more than the average dog where they use their nose in life as a default rather than their eyes like most dogs tend to do. You want a dog that comes out of the truck for testing to have its nose on the ground, as that is the natural way it explores the world.”

To help raise money for clothing, GPS units, vet bills and other expenses, Dave and his team offer training sessions for interested SAR canine teams once a month. They receive no government money and most of their funding comes from donations.

CANIDAE is proud to sponsor the Search and Rescue Dogs Ontario team through the Special Achievers Program. This program includes a host of exemplary athletes, working dogs, therapy dogs and cats, K9 units and a whole lot more. Visit the CANIDAE website to meet them all! 

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