On the trail with Garfield County Search and Rescue dogs

Thomas Phippen
Glenwood Springs Post Independent

Weeko is a petite 8-year old golden retriever with flax-colored fur, slender frame and delicate features.

And she’s cute.

In fact, Weeko means “pretty girl” in Sioux.

But don’t let the cuteness fool you. Weeko is a working dog from snout to tail.

If a hiker, hunter or anyone else gets lost in the wilderness between the Maroon Bells and Flat Tops, Weeko is one of five certified search-and-rescue dogs that may be called in to look for the missing person.

Weeko’s work ethic was on display at a recent Garfield County Search and Rescue canine training in December.

Weeko scoured the trail, nose to the ground, trailing a Boy Scout hiding behind bushes by Elk Creek in New Castle. She didn’t slow down until she’d found the “missing” subject.

And she’s not alone in her pursuit.

All five Garfield County search-and-rescue dogs are “high-drive, high-energy, working breed dogs for a reason,” said Jody Gruys, team leader for the volunteer group.

“The breeds (have) a built-in retrieve, prey or herding drive that we work with,” Gruys said.

The mock missions Weeko takes part in proceed much like a real venture, but are far shorter and no one is in danger.

In the Sunday event, Boy Scouts or Cub Scouts troops volunteered, posing as missing persons. They rubbed gauze over their face and hands, and placed the gauze in a bag to be used as a scent article for the dogs to track.

How dogs track scents differ, and search dogs fall broadly into two types of scent tracking. Some dogs work in “trailing,” or following scents of a person left on the ground. Other dogs work scents in the air.

After finding the subject during the training, the dogs are rewarded with their favorite game.

Weeko likes to fetch a yellow ball that her handler, Debbie Wickersham, keeps hidden until the subject is located.

Gruys’ German shepherd Diesel likes to play tug-o-war. Border collie Angus likes his handler Wyman Bontrager to throw a Frisbee.

“To them, it’s a game,” handler Wendy Wampler said. “But there’s also a work ethic. They learn that it is truly a job, and when it’s time to go to work, it’s time to go to work.”

Training working dogs

All the Garfield County Search and Rescue handlers are volunteers, and have to spend years training and maintaining a trained search canine.

“It’s not something you can do halfway with these dogs, so you (train) as much as possible, as often as possible,” Gruys said.

In addition to the monthly gatherings, the team also travels once a month for Search and Rescue Dogs of the United States training, usually on the Front Range.

They also get together at least one day on weekends, and Wednesdays are reserved for keeping the dogs’ human remains detection skills sharp.

For the Garfield Search and Rescue dog team, it can take as long as three years to train a dog to achieve the advanced certifications.

“Since we’re volunteers, it takes a little bit longer than if we were like a paid professional that got a dog that was already semi-trained, or trained every day,” Gruys said.

Garfield Search and Rescue received an anonymous grant last year to help with some travel costs, but on the whole, the handlers do the work because they are passionate about it.

“You want to do good, so find something that you love to do, to do good,” Gruys said.