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Canadian Search Dog Association: ‘working together, so others may live’

Every rescue has a story. It begins with a passion for saving people.

By Heather Shtuka

Everything is dark and quiet. The snow is shifting and moving, settling like concrete, making breathing almost impossible. The small space above, the only entry for air, is suddenly filled with the prodding poking nose of a German shepherd. In the background, the cheers of the search and rescue team can be heard as the sound of shovels breaking through to provide fresh and clean air is welcome.

It is just a routine training day for a dog and her handler.

Dawn Campbell, a clinical nurse, recalls that day. “I’m being buried in snow, literally, and I have claustrophobia, so it was hard,” she says. “But you make yourself a pocket, and you wait till the dog finds you.”

Every year there are over 100,000 recorded cases of missing persons in Canada. Most of the missing are located within days of being reported. Search-and-rescue teams are often called upon to help local law enforcement with extended searches for those that remain unresolved.

The Canadian Search Dog Association (CSDA) is just of Alberta’s search and rescue organizations that support local police, fire, emergency response, security and first aid in an emergency.

How it all began

Cpl. Jim Galloway was Edmonton’s first RCMP dog handler. Agreeing to train and work alongside civilian dog handlers, he became the newly formed RCMP Civilian Search and Rescue Service Dog Program coordinator in 1995. In 2006, this provincial, non-profit organization officially changed their name to the Canadian Search Dog Association. According to their website, the CSDA “is a group of dedicated individuals who volunteer their time, energy, and resources to help save lives and support the community.” Dawn is one of those members. She has been with CSDA for seven and a half years.

Another dedicated volunteer is Amanda Ross, a 12-year veteran with CSDA. She is a patrol Sergeant with the Edmonton Police Service in her regular life. As a search manager with CSDA, Amanda says, “It's the people who keep me involved after all these years and what inspires me to continue to do this work."

Dawn agrees. "First and foremost, these dogs are our family. Build that bond, build that trust but most importantly, Fide Canem" – (trust your dog)!" says Dawn.

How to get started in search and rescue

Dogs and their handlers must undergo search validation testing conducted annually by the RCMP. Dawn outlines the training process in a dog's career that they profile in. "They will be validated in human search and rescue," says Dawn. Profiles include training to look for live finds, evidence, and human remains detection. Dawn and her dog Ana trained in all profiles. Each profile requires individual validation annually.

But it is not just the rigorous process of training that is crucial. It is the relationship between handler and dog that plays an important role. This starts with assessing the candidate's capacity to learn. "The trainer must have the humility to learn from mistakes and understand the innate importance of gaining that dog's trust," says Amanda.

Timing of training and the age of the dog factor into the process as well. "It usually takes one to two years to train a dog, depending on how old they are when they come in,” says Dawn. CSDA will not put a dog into the field until they have turned a year old.

Training assures that a dog can accomplish all search tasks, doing the unimaginable against impossible odds to find and rescue. They must navigate dangerous terrain confidently, regardless of distractions or the weather. It is the definition of true dedication and teamwork.

Myths and misconceptions

CSDA function directly under the RCMP tasking agency. This means that CSDA cannot initiate a search unless tasked by the RCMP. "Search dogs are often part of a mission, but they are not the only resource that police might use," says Amanda. Amanda talks about one myth that the public believes to be accurate, that police rely solely on maps and guesswork. "The reality is that there are so many other strategies and considerations that a police search team is likely reviewing and prioritizing during a search," she says.

Another misconception is that members will handle every missing person's case. The reality is starkly different, with some handlers participating in one or two searches a year. "The bond in our team's relationship relies on working continually on our skills, explains Dawn, “You train. You train to save a life."

Why search and rescue

Amanda stressed that volunteers put hundreds of hours into their training with no expected reward. They need to be ready at a moment's notice for the call to assist in the search for a missing person. Whether or not that person is found alive, CSDA volunteers recognize their part in such a profound and highly personal event. "Despite the difficulty of recovering human remains, I know they feel good in knowing a family might have closure. I can't think of a more noble cause,” says Amanda.

Even with the passing of her German shepherd, Ana, this past year, Dawn continues to participate in searches. "It is not for the faint of heart, but we train hard. Train to save a life."

To learn about the Canadian Search Dog Association, visit their website for volunteering or donating opportunities.

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