By Sandra Zunino
When Blake, a yellow Labrador, came to the QAC Department of Animal Services more than a year ago, something about him stood out to Animal Control Officer Walter Tucker and he approached Director Morris Jones Sr. with an idea.
Blake’s personality, intelligence and demeanor earmarked him as a perfect candidate for search and rescue training. Walt, now retired, was a K-9 officer for Annapolis city for more than 20 years, so he was quick to recognized Blake’s possibilities. Morris immediately approved and the new and unofficial search and rescue dog training branch emerged.
Unofficial because the animal control officers provide all the time, training and care for Blake entirely out of their own pockets. Officer Shannon Cross soon became Blake’s “handler”. Shannon relies heavily on Walt’s expertise, and has been learning right alongside Blake, who stays with her 24-hours a day.
Blake’s training began in small doses. “We started putting about four to five hours in per week,” explains Shannon, “so as not to overwhelm the dog.” The progression of training depends on how well the animal learns. According to Shannon, Blake caught on very quickly.
The handler must keep a detailed log of the dog’s training and progress. “This journal is a map of the track,” she explains. A “track” involves giving Blake a scent article to sniff that belongs to the “victim”, and allowing him to track the victim’s whereabouts. Blake wears a special harness, which is only used when he is in tracking mode. “He knows when we put this on, it’s time to work,” says Shannon.
It’s the responsibility of the handler to keep the dog excited about the track and tune into the dog’s cues for a successful rescue. Blake and Shannon have been participating in unannounced drills since October. Once called, they must immediately respond to a track.
“I never know in advance when I’m going to get a call, or where I’m going,” says Shannon. Shannon and Blake have been doing two or three random drills a week.
Once officially online, Shannon and Blake may be called in to rescue a lost child, or someone who is injured or confused, so time is critical. Whether tracking through wilderness or in a crowd of people, Blake must maintain his focus.
Fortunately, his keen sense of smell can distinguish between the victim’s individual scent and all the other smells lingering about. While rain does not seem to hinder Blake’s ability, windy conditions present more of a challenge.
When Blake is not working, he is a typical, friendly pet. This is desirable in a search and rescue dog because the animal won’t intimidate the victim. Police K-9s, on the other hand, are trained to pursue criminals with aggression. Fortunately, Blake and Shannon will not be called for criminal pursuit.
Recently, Blake found his victim in three or four minutes across a ½ mile track and training has progressed to where Walt is almost ready to put him officially online. Shannon says she doubts only herself, understanding the awesome responsibility that goes with being a search and rescue dog handler.
According to Walt, Shannon and Blake may not be able to find every victim, but when they do complete as successful rescue together, their elation will know no bounds.