Diesel and Elcha are unlike most pet dogs.
Regular walks in the park aside, these cross-trained canines have a critical job: They locate missing people, dead or alive.
“The dogs have to have the ability to seamlessly switch over from that live find and still tell us they located the subject,” Garfield County Search and Rescue handler Jody Gruys said, “even though they are deceased.”
Garfield County Search & Rescue spent Saturday at the Rifle Ranger District performing training exercises with these naturally-skilled detectives. Battling slight, fluctuating winds, the dogs were put to the test on their abilities to trail, sniff and even detect the presence of human remains.
Using hundreds of acres of open land, as well as building simulations and parking lots, Diesel and Elcha, including additional canine cohorts, ran through several emergency scenarios.
The large group training session marked one of Search & Rescue’s first in nearly a year. Previous COVID-19 restrictions limited these sorts of group lessons, Gruys said.
Diesel is a German Shepherd with a knack for quickly finding a live body.
With Garfield County Search & Rescue responsible for covering an average of 30 missions per year, this furry, 9-year-old veteran has seen his fair share of life-and-death situations, Gruys said. He’s trained in several categories, including air-scent techniques, wilderness navigation and avalanches. He can also help river rescue.
“He absolutely loves the water,” she said of her dog, who spends his off-time just being a regular, old dog at Gruys’ residence. “We’ve been on several water searches, drownings.”
Tasked Saturday with navigating his way through mud, snow and loose construction materials, Diesel practices his innate sense of smell — something scientists report to be up 100,000 times stronger than the human nostril — to diligently seek a person trapped in a simulation of a collapsed structure.
Echoes of Diesel’s eager barks ring the eardrums. He takes off running.
“He smells human remains,” Gruys said. “That’s where he’s going.”
Called back, he enters the structure. He uses incessant sniffling to sweep through every nick and cranny to pin down a human scent pool. Once that’s discovered, his ears perk up and everything quiets. He perches up on a shelf and finds a live human.
For reward, Diesel likes Gruys to give him a chew toy, which he gnaws on for the next two minutes.
“He loves to snatch, he loves to find,” Gruys said. “But he loves to play.”
Three-year-old Elcha is more in the beginning stages of her certification, an official honor recognized by Search and Rescue Dogs of the United States.
The organization trains, evaluates, and certifies dog-and-handler teams across the country.
Elcha’s handler and owner, Greg Yost, is an active-duty staff sergeant in the Colorado National Guard. Inspired by his 2011 deployment to Afghanistan, where he once medevacked a U.S. Marine Corps working dog, Yost said he decided to Elcha through the Returning Soldier Initiative.
The affiliate program of SARDUS pairs soldiers returning from overseas with canines, equipped with variety skill sets. In Elcha’s case, she’s better at some than others.
“She used to be a trailing dog and we tested for that, but she got into a bunch of squirrels and she didn’t pass,” Yost said. “She kind of had a tendency to air scent, anyway.”
The young, nimble dog spent Saturday weaving her way through nearly 200 acres of open field, dotted with sagebrush, larger bushes and trees. Her task is to locate a missing person hiding in this large swath of land, using wind direction to direct her scent.
Longtime handler Wendy Wampler said it can typically take Elcha under these conditions to find a human subject between 1 ½ to 2 hours. With a dog like Elcha, it’d take a lot more time.
“As an incident commander, I’d probably want to put 20 people here across the field,” she said.
But the wind is steady today, so Elcha finds what she’s looking for: another live human.
When Elcha’s off duty, she’s busy living the domestic life.
“I have a 7-year-old, and they love each other or hate each other,” Yost said. “A lot of times my daughter will go inside her crate with her and lay against her as a pillow, and she does her homework or she watches a movie, and that dog will just lay there with her.”
“She always just wants to be with us, whatever we’re doing,” Yost added. “If we’re going to the bathroom or in the kitchen, she just wants to come hang out and be there next to you. She loves to go on car rides, she loves to chase stuff a little too much, unfortunately.”
Yost said, overall, Elcha is just a part of the family.