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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.

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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