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Backpacker Magazine – August 2009

Yosemite Rescue Dogs: Could This Dog Save Your Life?

Kristin Bjornsen hikes into the Sierras to meet Gus, a new breed of highly trained rescue professional that's already patrolling Yosemite for lost and injured backpackers.

by: Kristin Bjornsen, Photos by Mark Compton

Three-year-old Gus (Mark Compton)
Three-year-old Gus (Mark Compton)
Bigelow preps Gus for a 250-ft rappel (Mark Compton)
Bigelow preps Gus for a 250-ft rappel (Mark Compton)
Bigelow and Gus (Mark Compton)
Bigelow and Gus (Mark Compton)
Gus works on his climbing (Terry Butrym)
Gus works on his climbing (Terry Butrym)

Dragoo had suffered a shattered ankle, six broken ribs, a punctured lung, and a gash on his forehead in a headfirst, 25-foot tumble on Thursday, August 4. After failing to locate his cousin, Dragoo had scrambled atop a ridge to build a memorial for his son and tripped on talus. Too injured to descend to camp, he survived by drinking lake water, rationing his gorp, and huddling against the boulder for shelter. The search helicopters that passed overhead gave him hope, but Ranger gave him the greeting of his life: a cold spray of water from a vigorous shake of his shaggy coat.

Ranger's discovery of Dragoo had far-reaching effects, most notably causing California's Office of Emergency Services (OES) and other state SAR agencies to expand the typical intensive-search window from three to seven days. (At least three other people have been found alive in that extended period since then.) The search also highlighted the value of a certified dog team. What helicopters and more than 50 ground pounders hadn't found, a panting furface named Ranger had. In fact, one far-ranging dog and a competent handler can cover the same ground as quickly as 20 people.

Today's K-9 SAR teams must pass a gauntlet of tests to become certified. With CARDA, for example, dogs must find an unknown number of people (one to three) in a 100- to 200-acre area in less than four hours. Handlers test for scent theory, first aid, crime-scene preservation, and more. But as the Dragoo search demonstrated, mountain rescues require special skills. In places like Yosemite, the searchers also must be seasoned high-country explorers, comfortable with rugged terrain, mercurial weather, and altitude.

On a sunny morning in September, I join Bigelow and Butrym (a private investigator from Rocklin, California) for a training session at the Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort, outside Truckee. We walk toward the pine-covered ridge of Mt. Disney. Somewhere in this area hides another YODOGS member, Rick Strasser. Gus and Bigelow's job is to find him.

Six feet tall and 180 pounds, Bigelow has salt-and-pepper hair, rimmed glasses, and a baritone voice. He wears a yellow T-shirt that reads "Yosemite Search and Rescue" and sports a walkie-talkie on his hip. He radiates competence. So it surprises me when he suddenly says, in high-pitched baby-talk, "Are you gonna find him, Gus-Gus? Gonna work-work?" When Gus explodes into action, running ahead, ears perked up like periscopes, nose in the air, Bigelow confides: "It's hard at first for guys like me to get over the high-pitched voice. But what's important is that it gets the dogs to respond."

Bigelow bought Gus in 2006 from an Australian shepherd breeder in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He had wanted a pup that displayed the qualities of a good search dog: curious, playful, highly driven to track "prey" (a missing person), and neither the alpha nor the omega personality ("a dog willing to make decisions on his own but who would also listen," says Bigelow). At the breeder's house, Bigelow unsuccessfully tried to run obstacle courses with two other puppies. Then he tested seven-week-old Gus, who'd been curled up napping. "He was a ball of fire, relentlessly trying to get my toys," Bigelow says. Thirty minutes later, they were driving back to California, Gus asleep on Bigelow's lap. Twenty minutes after that, a carsick Gus was puking on Bigelow's jeans.

Fast-forward three years, and Gus seems to be living up to his puppy promise, sprinting through the grass, nose on the job. But as we walk along, one question bothers me. "Why didn't you give Gus one of Strasser's socks or T-shirts to sniff, like they do in crime movies?" I ask. Bigelow explains that only "trailing dogs"–which track the scent a person leaves on the ground when he or she walks through an area–need a whiff of clothing. That trail is composed of dead skin cells, called rafts, that fall off the human body at a rate of 40,000 per second. Trailing dogs track the cells to discover a victim's direction of travel.

Gus, on the other hand, is an "air-scent" dog, which means the skin rafts he targets emanate directly from the lost person, billowing off of them like steam from a sweaty body and creating a "scent cone." Air-scent dogs zero in on the source of the cone and work to detect any and all humans in the search area–which today means the hidden Strasser.

Bigelow, Gus, and I hike up the steep, forested slope to the ridgeline and traverse along it. As morning sun warms the ridge, cold air rises, giving Gus a whiff of the odors below. We travel west with no sign of Strasser. Bigelow works Gus in a grid pattern, moving him into the wind.

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Blackstone Valley Outfitters
Jan 14, 2011

Great Article. Years ago I trained our first dog, a golden retriever in tracking and know first hand the hard work and dedication both handler and dog have.

Jan 14, 2011

Who packs out the poop for the wolves and big cats?

Jan 13, 2011

I'm all for the SAR dogs, but let's keep the other domestic animals at home. The last thing I want on the trail is to have to deal with someone's dog. Oh, I'm sure I'll get an earful from all the owners of well trained and obedient dogs. Well, I'm not talking about yours then, but unfortunately all dog owners aren't like you so save the lecture on how perfect your pooch is.

Sep 06, 2009

Amazing article. Dogs are wonderful animals that can be our companions, our best friends, workout partners, and saviors. Wish I could take mine into the woods with me more often. Also, bless the people that give of their time and money to volunteer to do this in the SARs.

Aug 27, 2009

Camille, I think David's comments were in reference to JDG's comments about increased canine presence on NPS trails.

Aug 27, 2009

David, while your comments are true, they are irrelevant to the story. It's about SAR dogs, not untrained people who bring their dogs into the wilderness. It was a very interesting and educational story about the evolution of the canine wilderness SARS team. Read it again (all 5 pages).

Aug 27, 2009

Certainly there are well trained dogs and dog owners that understand the back country. Unfortunately, there is a larger number of clueless dog owners with a variety of dogs that are more likely to become snacks for the wild animals. When a prized pet goes missing the woods, our rangers don't want to spend time dealing with the distraught owners. Also, most of these owners do not properly deal with the Leave No Trace ethic.

Aug 24, 2009

Shouldn't the title read "Yosemite" instead of "Yellowstone"? No worries... I make that mistake all the time myself.

Aug 16, 2009

Wonderful article, these SAR dogs could be the gateway for other compataint dogs and dog owner/handler to be free to take their dogs into national parks on trails. Which I usually don't get a chance to visit as often as I like for the very reason that dogs are not allowed on trails in national parks. From what I witness quite often is that the people in the wilderness cause way more damage than any dog causes out there.


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