SPOTLIGHT: Northwest Pups to the Rescue
Photos courtesy of Robert “Bob” Calkins
Earlier this year KOMO 4NEWS reported that “Washington State Has the Nation's 4th-Highest Rate of Missing Persons.” In May 2019, there were 643 open missing person cases across the state.
In many of these cases, dogs and their humans come to the rescue.
Seattle Pup Magazine had the opportunity to sit down with Robert “Bob” Calkins author and search and rescue volunteer for Kitsap County Search Dogs earlier this year. Bob and his K9s have been serving Washington State by locating missing persons, helping the police solve homicides, and finding remains after natural disasters including the Oso landslide in 2014.
We met Bob at the premiere of Superdogs at the Pacific Science Center where K-9 Ruger and Bob showed off what it takes to be an outstanding search and rescue team. Bob began by hiding Ruger from four boxes he had positioned in front of the crowd. He then called for Ruger, and a beautiful Golden Retriever ran from the other side of the hall. Ruger sniffed each box and then promptly sat and looked at Bob. WOW! Over and over with different boxes and different locations this dog was SPOT ON!
Bob started his volunteer career with Kitsap County several years ago as a ham radio operator. As part of the communications team he relayed information to and from search volunteers in the field. Pretty soon, Bob decided he didn’t want to sit inside the van; instead he wanted to get outside with his dog, Sierra.
Living next to a K-9 officer, Sierra and Bob joined their neighbors one day to see if they had the skills necessary to be a search and rescue team. They did. Over the years, Bob has trained four dogs to do search and rescue: Sierra, Magnum, Ruger, and Rocco. All of Bob’s dogs have been Golden Retrievers.
According to Bob it is very important to be able to “read” your dog. “You are looking for a ‘change in behavior.’ It is not likely that you just walk through the woods with your dog and ‘voila’ the missing person is there. Instead, as a trainer you are constantly screening your pup for changes. You are looking for a trained final response. As a trainer you need to know the difference between a sit that means ‘I want water’ and ‘I’ve found something.’”
Bob prefers to work with Golden Retrievers because “Golden Retrievers are terrible poker players and it is easier to read their behavior.” German Shepherds also make fine search dogs (see German Shepard Search Dogs for example), as do many other breeds. It is important to note that search and rescue dogs are not breed specific. That said, most dogs are in the 50–80lb range and need to have the stamina to do the work. Dogs also need to be driven. Most dogs are either toy, food, or attention driven. In Bob’s case, his dogs have been toy driven. In other words, getting toy for a job well done is the best thing ever!
“It is not likely that you just walk through the woods with your dog and ‘voila’ the missing person is there."
Bob explained that training your dog for search and rescue is extremely dog and handler specific. “Train the dog in front of you.” What do they want to do in front of you? Do they want to tug on a toy? Do they prefer food, or praise? In the end, he says, every partnership is different and it’s the handler who must adapt to the dog.
Kitsap County Search Dogs has on approximately 13 volunteer search and rescue dog/handler teams. When a family calls 911 to report a missing person, law enforcement activates search and rescue but also does a parallel investigation to make sure the person really is in trouble. Bob and Sierra were once hip-deep in a muddy swamp surrounded by blackberries when credit card activity revealed the missing person was on a flight to Las Vegas! All volunteer teams are registered with the country and their service is covered by state insurance. Volunteers are not salaried, and their dogs are not covered for their daily care. Seattle Pup Magazine encourages you to support search and rescue teams. Please visit the Seattle Pup Community Canines page for details.
Mycologists, Hikers, Hunters, and Others
Humans go missing for numerous reasons. According to Bob, just about every spring a mycologist (mushroom hunter) will go missing. They are looking at the ground and not always paying attention to the rest of their environment. Mushroom clubs are now offering navigation classes to their members to help limit this problem. Hikers and hunters also find themselves in difficult situations.
Sadly, search and rescue teams are also put into service to find people who may have committed suicide. This search is very different from trying to find someone who knows they are lost and is panicking.
If you, or someone you know, is suffering from depression or is suicidal please call 1-800-273-8255 or check out these suicide prevention apps.
If you are under the age of 18 and want to talk to kids your own age check out these youth resources.
Alzheimers Patients and Search and Rescue
With the increase in the senior citizen population, finding lost Alzheimer’s patients is a new development for search and rescue teams. Bob explains that teams are asked to find Alzheimer’s patients more and more these days and that finding them requires different skills. In the past, dogs were trained for wilderness and distressed urban environments which would include broken concrete and piles of rubble (after an earthquake for example); now they are being asked to find people in the city.
“It’s more challenging, for sure. First of all, most people with Alzheimer’s live in cities or suburbs. Which means that they are walking on a sidewalk or cement. Dirt and vegetation hold the scent longer and do not shift with rain or wind as much. It is a bit harder to follow the scent of someone lost in the city.”
"Dirt and vegetation hold the scent longer
and do not shift with rain or wind as much.
It is a bit harder to follow the scent of someone
lost in the city.”
Are you and your pup interested in becoming a search and rescue team? Most of the counties in Washington State have a search and rescue organization, the State of Washington Search & Rescue Volunteer Advisory Council has links to all of the S&R groups across the state.
Training takes place at all times of the year, snow, rain, sun, fog and is held both in the classroom and in the field.
Human training takes place first, what is called “ground pounding” certification without the dog. This training includes navigation, terrain, first aid, and how to get the person out of potentially dangerous situations. Once that is complete training the dog and human can begin.
Handlers are of all ages. Handlers can be as young as 14 to join classes. By the age of 16 they can serve as a team leader, by age 18 a handler could be a field leader managing teams.
For details on search and rescue teams across the state of Washington, check out the State of Washington Search & Rescue Volunteer Advisory Council.
Seattle Pup Magazine is proud to support local non-profits like the Kitsap County Search Dogs. All dog-centric, local non-profits are listed on Seattle Pup for free. Do you know of an organization that isn't on the list? Do you have a story to share with Seattle Pup Magazine? Please email email@example.com .