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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)

At the time, such requirements were groundbreaking. Only a few organizations nationwide had anything similar. They also ruffled feathers. Some handlers felt (and still feel) the criteria unfairly excluded less wilderness-savvy searchers–as if YODOGS were an elitist clique with SWAT team hauteur. "People felt we were saying they weren't good enough to be back there," says Bigelow. "But it wasn't their search skills in question. It was their wilderness skills." Mark Herrick, a CARDA-certified, mission-ready handler who's not a member of YODOGS, agrees, adding it's a question of putting people in the right terrain. "I live at sea level," Herrick says. "I know that if I go up to altitude, I'm going to feel crappy, so I choose not to." But not everyone self-screens in this manner. "Yosemite is a sexy place to search," says Bigelow, and missions have an exciting, "I'll save the day!" appeal. This can lead handlers to overstate their abilities. So ruffled feathers or no, Bigelow says, YODOGS' stringent criteria stand.

Bigelow, Butrym, and I finish the mock search for Strasser and drive to Smokey's Kitchen in Truckee to meet other YODOGS members: Gordon, Mary, Lynn, Elise, and others, along with their dogs. Chocolate Labs, German shepherds, golden retrievers, and Aussies frolic in the parking lot. The handlers come from a variety of professions: lawyers, doctors, firefighters, scientists. But they all have a few things in common: extensive backpacking and mountaineering experience, an obsessive dedication to search and rescue, and a belief that their dog is the dog. "Is there friendly competition between YODOGS members?" I ask.

"There's nothing 'friendly' about it," jokes Bigelow. "But once we put the SAR shirts on, we're all on the same team."

All volunteers, they easily rack up 15,000 miles a year driving to searches and training sessions. They practice multiple times a week and spend thousands on doggie gear and health care. Gordon's late dog, Hana, ruptured her ACL on a Yosemite search ($6,000), and Elise dropped $3,000 when her Lab, Moose, fell ill after "eating who knows what on a SAR," she says.

Because of these hazards, most of the handlers carry pet health insurance. Jokingly calling themselves "The $10,000 Dog Club," they also spend big bucks on Vibram-soled booties, Doggles (canine goggles), and harnesses.

Their dedication has paid off, with all the members having found (or helped find) missing persons, both in Yosemite and surrounding areas. Yet not all searches end happily. "Yosemite is vertical granite, sleek ravines, and a vast backcountry," Jones says. "We don't always find people, and when we do, we don't always find them alive."

Mary's German shepherd, Banshee, is a "cadaver detection" dog, trained to find bones, blood, and the smell of decay (caused by degraded proteins called cadaverine and putrescine). Along with body recovery, search dogs can specialize in avalanche, urban disaster, and water searches. The best can find victims submerged as much as 30 feet underwater by smelling skin cells that float to the surface.

Dogs accomplish such feats through their 150 to 220 million olfactory receptors–versus the 5 million humans have. They also have vomeronasal organs–fluid-filled sacs behind the upper incisors, which enable them to identify pheromones. Their extraordinary power of smell may be the reason they can distinguish between males, females, children (even twins); people's emotions; animals in estrus; and pre-seizure states in epileptics.

Three-year-old Gus still has a way to go before reaching that level of expertise. In dog-rescue years, he's still a puppy, with all of a puppy's foibles: If he gets the frisbee during tug-of-war, he won't give it back, and he chronically steals Bigelow's socks. Last October, however, Gus got a chance to prove himself. Hikers in Yosemite Valley had stumbled upon a backpack that belonged to Ruthanne Rupert, a 49-year-old woman who disappeared in 2000. With this new clue, searchers resumed the hunt for her remains, sending Gus, Bigelow, and about 20 searchers into a cliffy ravine.

Gus and Bigelow picked their way down mossy rocks, navigating around 10-foot drop-offs. Partway down, "Gus pawed at the ground and looked at me quizzically," Bigelow says. He saw that Gus had unearthed a badly chewed boot, later believed to be Rupert's. It was Gus's first find. Though the searchers combed the ravine, they found nothing else. Most likely, Rupert got off trail and fell in the cliffy ravine. Animals would have scattered the pack and other remains.



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READERS COMMENTS

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.

calboy147
Jan 14, 2011

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

James
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.

missthemountains
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.

SEC
Aug 27, 2009

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

Camille
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).

David
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.

Mike
Aug 24, 2009

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

JDG
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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