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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.

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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