by Betsy Natter
For many dog owners, their canine companions are loyal pets that eat, snuggle, play and love as part of the family unit. But, some local dogs go a step beyond, providing valuable services and giving hope to those in need during times of crisis.
The dogs of Alpha K9 Search and Rescue (SAR) Team in Bucks County and their human handlers train weekly so they are prepared whenever a need arises. If someone reports a missing person, the team may be called in to assist local law enforcement with the search. Utilizing the dogs’ sharp senses and tracking skills, handlers can locate individuals who are lost, confused or injured. This may be an individual who is autistic or suffering from Alzheimer’s and has wandered away from safety.
According to co-founder Kerrie Garges, the 13 handlers on the team are committed to the mission of helping people within the community and reconnecting those who are lost or missing with their loved ones. Handlers and dogs train every weekend in varied terrains and all types of weather. “Someone once said to me that this was my hobby, but it’s really not a hobby. It’s a passion,” said Garges.
Founded in 2016, the unit will go out if called in by local law enforcement. The team always works with local authorities and supports them in searching for individuals in non-criminal cases.
Developing Skills and Training
While the dogs themselves are tested and certified as mastering specific skills, dogs and handlers work as a team. The handler’s reactions to certain situations or behaviors will directly affect whether a dog passes or fails their test. Dogs are trained in airscent, tracking, trailing and HR, each category utilizing a dog’s specific skills or abilities. Additionally, dogs must be good with people, non-aggressive and able to pass the AKC Good Citizenship Test.
Human handlers must do their fair sharing of learning as well. As people involved in rescue operations, they must be trained in CPR for both people and pets. They study navigation, route and area search techniques, man tracking and how to work with ropes and knots. The handler must also know their dog well and understand what they are doing while on a mission. For example, they study how scent travels on the wind and how it interacts with the environment. The handler is then able to read the dog’s reactions and knows how to respond and direct the dog during a search.
“They are amazing creatures,” said Garges. “It’s incredible what you can do with a dog. They are our pets, but when they see me loading the gear into the car, they are at the door. Once we get to a training site, they know it’s time to work and they are ready to go.” All the dogs on the team are highly motivated and love the search process.
How You Can Help
All this hard work requires planning and financial backing as well. “There’s a lot of time and dedication involved but also a lot of expense,” says Garges. Training seminars, a communal first aid kit, GPS kits, walkie talkies, vests, harnesses, helmets, lights and rewards for finds are all part of the regular expenses the unit incurs. The team holds several fundraising events throughout the year and it relies on the donations to meet its operating expenses. Property owners throughout the area also assist the unit by granting permission to hold training exercises on their land.
The Alpha K9 team also presents many educational programs to raise awareness about their work. They teach others how not to get lost and what to do if they lose their way. They also create an awareness of the team’s mission and raise financial support for their work.
Alpha K9 Team members are grateful for the assistance of volunteers who help them with training exercises. All types of people from mothers, to teenagers, to an elderly woman have volunteered to hide in an undisclosed place within the training area and wait until found. Alpha K9 team dogs utilize their skills and find the hiding person. Varied human scents and hiding spots help to improve the dogs’ skills. After each find, the dogs receive special treats that they only get during training exercises, highlighting the experience for them and keeping them motivated to work.
In addition to hiding from the dogs, volunteers can serve as “flankers.” These people support the handler by walking along side and watching for dangerous conditions and terrain and keeping their eye out for clues like a dropped article of clothing. Anyone interested in learning more about Alpha K9 Search and Rescue of Bucks County or volunteering with the team can contact Kerrie through their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Alphak9sar.