Drone Certification TestSearch and rescue K9 unit keeps training front and center | Animals in the News

November 18, 2021by helo-10

Delinda VanneBrightyn has been training dogs with the Taos Search and Rescue (SAR) K9 Unit for almost 20 years. The unit is made up of all volunteer handlers and dogs, which are highly-trained and dedicated to the mission: finding people who have gone missing.

It takes about 1.5 to 2 years of training for a dog to reach mission-ready status, according to VanneBrightyn, who is the president of Taos SAR, base unit leader and leader of the K9 Unit.

“I’ve learned so much, it’s been, I mean, 20 years and I’m still learning. So [you go] beyond what you think your limitations [are] and more,” she said.

The time commitment is, at the very least, four full days each month of training activities with the team, VanneBrightyn said. Individual handlers and dogs continue to practice at home during the month. The dogs need to understand and respond quickly to several different commands to even be considered as a potential SAR dog. In addition to search-specific training, the dogs are required to complete additional training in obedience, agility, problem-solving and behavioral shaping, according to information on the K9 unit’s website.

VanneBrightyn said the Taos Search and Rescue (TSAR) team was formed in 1978. It has 10 specialized search units: base and incident command, ground, medical, K9, technical, drone, bike, OHV, swift-water and winter skills, according to the TSAR website. They also operate a mobile command unit and 4-wheel drive response unit.

Currently, there are seven dogs on the K9 Unit. Each dog has a dedicated handler who works with that dog on specialized training. In the trainer-K9 relationship, strong communication is key to building essential trust so the dog can do its best work when a real mission is underway.

“We have to fine tune the handler-dog relationship in such a way that we have more reliability,” said VanneBrightyn, who is the handler of AkioYodasan, a beautiful 6-year-old white German shepherd who is currently the only dog who is mission-ready.

Another dog, KonaYuki, a British Labrador, has avalanche training and is also an AVI dog at Taos Ski Valley. KonaYuki and the other 5 dogs are working on obtaining their national SAR certification. They’re making progress.

“It’s a very intense kind of thing that we do. It just requires a lot of dedication and willingness to serve,” VanneBrightyn said.

Our dogs have to do a plethora of obedience and agility trials, which are routines that are not required for national certification, she said. “We have rigorous standards along the lines of national standards,” VanneBrightyn said.

VanneBrightyn said dogs in the K9 unit have to be prepared for many different scenarios. They have to look in snow like after an avalanche, under water, find children who are hiding, as well as people who may be combative and delusional due to an advanced state of hypothermia, or from alcohol, substance abuse or dementia. They are trained to find people hiding up in a tree. They also can find people who are unconscious, or “unresponsive subjects,” as the unit refers to them.

While the K9 Unit primarily performs wilderness searches, VanneBrightyn said that it is good practice to search urban areas also, since people go missing in both remote locations and within cities.

Elderly people with dementia and young children can wander off and easily get lost in both rural and more populated places, so it’s great practice for the dogs to be prepared for both types of scenarios, VanneBrightyn said. The dogs’ training allows them to be prepared for any type of situation and find people in all states without becoming alarmed or agitated.

VanneBrightyn said that the terrain in Taos County is some of the most difficult to comb through. Many places are covered in thick scrub and are very rugged and steep in many places. Taos Search and Rescue has often assisted in the recovery of suicide victims who jump from the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge.

As such, dogs are also trained to search in the rivers and acequias, and some, like KonaYuki, will receive additional training to locate people buried in avalanches. They are trained to track scents in the air, find unresponsive subjects and follow trails for miles. They have to know the difference between human and animal scents — and also the difference between live human scent and the scent of human remains.

The dogs are trained to stay in place once they find the subject for up to 50 minutes while out in the wilderness and 20 minutes without a handler present, they also have to heel and follow several other basic commands. The dogs are trained to be patient, as missions can take hours and sometimes days to complete.

VanneBrightyn noted that even dogs have bad days. She said sometimes the canines aren’t feeling great for various reasons, so their reliability can vary, just like humans. That why, she said, the unit does more training than is required.

Tamar Stieber, another member of TSAR, is the handler for Lucien, a 4-year-old black German Shepherd who has one more pre-evaluation to pass before he is ready to get his mission-ready evaluation for SAR certification.

Stieber explained that Lucien injured his paw and was recovering for a few months. The COVID-19 pandemic put a pause to their work, also affecting how they do things. But Lucien and the other dogs are getting back to their training and will be certified soon.

Stieber said the final test for the national SAR certification requires each dog to search for a subject in a 160-acre area and make the find within four hours. To be certified for the Taos K9 Unit, a dog has to find one or two subjects (they aren’t told how many will be hiding) in a 120-acre area within four hours.

On Tuesday (Nov. 16), VanneBrightyn, Stieber and several other handlers ran dogs through training exercises at the Taos Center for the Arts, which allowed use of their building. In the past, the police department would coordinate with the team and sometimes allow them to use abandoned buildings for these weekly training exercises, VanneBrightyn said.

McLaren Scott and Isla Roch, a mother-daughter team of volunteers participated in the search training. Roch, who is 12 years old, hid in a cabinet in the building and waited for a dog to find her. She also hid in the curtains on stage at the TCA. She and her mother are looking for a puppy to begin training to become handlers in the K9 Unit, too.

The least-experienced dogs went first, as the more traffic in the building, the more scents that come into play and the harder it becomes for the dog to follow the one targeted for each exercise.

Malia Reeves, who is the handler for KonaYuki, said the search and rescue job is second nature for the dogs.

“Really though, a lot of what they do is their own natural search skills like that they would be using for hunting and [this is] just sort of bringing that out and giving them the chance to use it,” Reeves said.

Later that day, the dogs completed agility trials, just to ensure that they are in peak physical condition and can traverse any type of terrain. This weekend, they will be out in the field doing searches and other exercises.

So far, the unit has yet to meet their operational budget via online fundraising. They do not receive federal or state funding for the operating budget and expenses include insurance, vehicles, equipment, etc. Besides the time that volunteers give, they also use their own money to pay for veterinarian bills, vests, leads, tracking collars, extra medical gear, harnesses and other necessary supplies.

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