When Michelle Huber first got her pure-bred German Shepherd, Rolf, she read in a training manual that, as a working breed of dog, it wasn’t wise to own one unless you had a job for it.
“We didn’t own a farm so I tried volunteering with the St. John’s Ambulance Society with him as a therapy dog,” Huber said. “He just wasn’t suitable. He was a big, bouncy, energetic puppy, not all that therapeutic.”
It was at that point she began training Rolf for a job he turned out to be perfect for: a valued member of the South Columbia Search and Rescue team (SAR).
Huber and Rolf joined SAR in 2011 and went through the required training for him to be “validated” as an official SAR dog.
“There are three things that make an SAR dog,” said Huber. “You have to belong to a SAR team, you have be certified for ground search and rescue, and you have to validate with the B.C. Search Dog Association, which is governed by the RCMP.”
Huber and Rolf’s first official job turned out to be a serious challenge; the coordinated search efforts after the Johnsons Landing slide in 2012.
“We worked with the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team out of Vancouver,” Huber said. “There were three dogs on the job, the RCMP dog handling team, another canine team trained for live finds only, and Rolf.”
Since that time the South Columbia SAR K-9 unit has been involved in searches in the Beaver Valley, Ymir, Creston, and Castlegar, often being recruited by other SAR teams in the Kootenays who haven’t yet established a K-9 unit.
“Probably one of the most rewarding searches so far was the elderly gentleman who was lost in Fruitvale,” Huber said. “It was our first live-find. It was quite exciting and when we were de-briefing at the hall afterwards the ambulance honked at us as they drove by. It was then I realized that we really could help.”
Search dogs, like Rolf, actually search by using their incredibly sensitive sense of smell to track an individual human’s skin cells. Although they do some tracking on the ground most of their search involves sniffing for “rafts” of cells floating in the air.
Not all of the searches have happy endings as there are searches that involve recovering the remains of missing individuals who didn’t survive. But in many cases just having a trained search dog on the job increases the possibility of a positive outcome.
“Sometimes it seems like he’s a symbol of hope for families,” said Huber. “I work hard at emphasizing that he’s not there as a family pet, he’s my search partner. And he just lives for it.”
Huber and Rolf spend almost no time in pointless play, the majority of their time together is training of one sort or another. Although you wouldn’t know it watching as Rolf scours the park, tail wagging and barking excitedly whenever he finds his search goal.
“We have formal training twice a week but it’s every day,” Huber said. “My husband built an agility course in our back yard so every opportunity is training but Rolf loves it.”
Huber defers much of her and Rolf’s success as a team to the support of the South Columbia SAR.
“Every specialized group has allowed us to train with them, which is something not all groups allow,” she said. “I’ve also had a lot of support from my co-workers at the Trail airport, my family, the community in general, and other search groups. Without that kind of support it would have been hard to get this far with Rolf.”