For search and rescue team, it’s a dog’s life

BOULDER — Behind every great rescue dog is a dedicated and committed trainer, who also happens to be the dog’s owner.

These folks have to be dedicated, because in order for their dogs to become eligible to start the Front Range Rescue Dogs training program, the owners need to log at least six months – and more often a full year — of training time themselves.

“It’s a lot of work,´ said Jeff Foltz, president of the Boulder-based nonprofit organization that has been working with area police departments in search and rescue operations since 1984. Prospective members are required to work on and develop their own search and rescue skills before introducing their dog to the team.

“The human partners need to have strong navigation skills and an understanding of scent theory (how scent travels), how to best search for people. They need to be good searchers prior to training the dog,” Foltz said. “New members have to prove their skills to the rest of the team — that they won’t get them in trouble, because that can happen easily out there. There’s a lot of trust within the team.”

Once the new member has established his or her skills and the appropriate trust has been built, their dogs enter the picture. Canine training starts as a game; owners run away from the dog and encourage it to chase them. When the dog is successful, it is given a reward. Soon the chases become lengthier and include the trainer hiding from the dog. Then they move into environments that replicate actual search scenarios. This is when the dog has to start using its nose to locate the trainer or another person. Practice searches can last an entire day and are conducted in a wide variety of weather conditions.

Currently, six certified dogs and 12 human members are on the FRRD team, which will take the field when the group gets a call from the sheriff.

Willingness to work is one of the qualities that make a good rescue dog. Puppies are not good candidates; they need to be at least 18 months old in order to have the right level of maturity to be trained properly. The dogs also need to be athletic so they can work for extended periods in the wilderness and be able to cover a lot of ground. FRRD’s canine team consists of Labrador retrievers, German shepherds, English shepherds and mixed-breed varieties. The dogs’ personality and drive carry more weight than their breed – although Yorkies need not apply.

“Primarily we assist in finding lost hikers, drownings — our dogs can find people under water — also mentally disabled people who wander away from assisted-living facilities,” Foltz said. Although not often asked to assist in abduction cases — “We aren’t chasing down criminals” — FRDD has helped when it’s deemed safe for it to do so. The team worked with Arvada police to locate the body of Jessica Ridgeway, the 10-year-old girl who was abducted on her way to school in October and then murdered and dismembered.

Each member carries a pager, which can go off at any time of day or night.

FRDD is an all-volunteer organization. There is no salaried staff and members supply their own gear, such as backpacks, rain gear and shoes. It operates on an annual budget of from $2,000 to $3,000. The Department of Local Affairs provides a grant of varying amounts that is directly applied to purchasing equipment for members. Donations round out the rest of the budget.

“This year, the board has made increasing awareness and fundraising top priorities for the coming year,” Foltz said. “It’s a tough balance. We don’t want to spend too many hours fundraising when we should be training or working at our occupations.”

Each FRRD team member has a day job. For Foltz, it’s practicing law.

FRRD is a recipient of Ideal Market’s “Small Change Adds Up” fundraiser from July through October. It’s a new format of an existing model: When shoppers enter the North Boulder store with their own bags, they can choose one of three nonprofits to donate what the cost of a store-supplied bag would be to that group. In September, they’ll be partnering with CrossFit Sanitas to raise money to support FRRD.

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