Westcoast Inland Search and Rescue has a new, four-legged recruit.
Splash, a 16-month old curly-coated retriever, is on her way to becoming the West Coast’s first-ever search dog.
“We are a dog team-in-training and Splash is an official member of our local search and rescue team,” WISAR member and Splash’s teammate Reanne Hamel told the Westerly.
“A dog can cover quite a bit more ground than a human can, so it’s a pretty great asset to a team to have a validated search dog.”
Hamel has lived on the West Coast for the past five years and joined WISAR about two years ago.
Fuelled by her love of dogs and an interest in being part of a dog team, Hamel got in touch with the B.C. Search Dog Association and got the application process rolling.
“I love working with dogs, and working with dogs that have a job is a pretty amazing thing,” she said. “The ability that these dogs have is totally incredible, and they love to work.”
She said Splash came from a breeder in Nova Scotia.
“I found a litter that I liked and we chose the craziest, nose-following puppy in the litter,” she said.
She and Splash attended a five-day puppy camp at Stillwood, near Chilliwack, where Splash shined.
“She loved it,” Hamel said. “She was really excited.”
All dog handlers must be members of their local search and rescue team and attend training camps with their canine partners.
“The profile that they learn is called wilderness air scenting,” Hamel said adding Splash will be taught to follow human scent and find articles like backpacks, clothing and freshly discarded cans.
“Our terrain is difficult to cover. We have lots of thick brush…She can get into places that we can’t as humans, and she can do it a lot faster.”
The program falls under the umbrella of the RCMP’s Police Dog Services and both Splash and Hamel must pass an exam in September and go through annual evaluations after that.
The exam will be conducted by an RCMP dog handler and run at least 90-minutes, during which Splash’ ability to search, and Hamel’s ability to utilize her partner’s skill-set, will be put to the test.
“I need to be able to navigate and keep an eye on my dog at the same time,” Hamel said adding Splash wears a bell during searches so she can be kept track of when she’s out of sight.
“We have to cover the terrain in the most efficient way possible…Your dog can’t find an article and not alert you to it, because that could translate to missing a child.”
If the team passes their exam, they will report to a dog handler in Port Alberni who will have the final say before Splash is officially welcomed into the search dog community.
“We certainly have a lot of work to do between now and then, but she’s a dog that loves to search so I think we have a pretty good chance,” Hamel said.
Hamel and Splash have been training with other dog teams on Vancouver Island to get prepared.
“It’s like a little family,” Hamel said. “We try to get together at least once a month with the other search dog handlers on the Island to train together. There’s a broad range of experience and it’s great for new handlers like me to see what other people are doing and to get feedback because I do a fair bit on my own out here.”
Hamel hasn’t just welcomed Splash to the West Coast, she’s welcomed her new partner into her home and that’s a commitment that offers little downtime.
“Being a very high-drive, young dog, she needs about four hours of hard exercise a day to make her tolerable to live with,” Hamel said. “She is never ever left unattended, because she would probably destroy things, especially being that she’s very young. She looks totally unruly. She looks like an untrained dog when we are out and about, but that’s part and parcel of having a working dog.”
She added Splash never stops searching.
“Even when we’re out for a casual walk, if there’s a lost glove or someone just littered a pop can or something, she’ll pick it up and bring it to me and be really excited about it,” she said.
“Even during their off-time, they’re always searching because they’ve been taught that this is the most fun game in the world and they always get rewarded with a fun game of tug or ball.”