Rescue dogs and handlers gather in Summit County for annual training
WINDY POINT — Rescue dogs and their handlers from around the state and beyond gathered off Swan Mountain Road at the Dillon Reservoir to train this week, giving the pups and their humans a chance to practice in wilderness tracking, water rescue and more.
Rescue workers made their way to the Windy Point campground area this week for an annual training event organized by Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment, bringing together representatives from a number of ski areas, search and rescue teams, law enforcement agencies and more to learn fundamental techniques and hone skills with their dogs.
For participants, getting a chance to work with other rescuers and dogs from diverse backgrounds and disciplines is invaluable.
“This is a great opportunity for people to come from different organizations, and to be able to learn and grow,” said Scott Robertshaw, president of Search & Rescue Dogs of Colorado. “Getting to work with people who have been doing this for 20 or 30 years is priceless. They’re great examples for people to develop as handlers and search and rescue people.”
This year’s training began on Sunday with a foundations course, meant to provide a simple refresher for more experienced dogs and rescuers, and to show newer handlers the ropes in the basics of dog training and development from puppy into accomplished rescuer.
The rest of the week’s training — set to end on Thursday — takes the dogs through more advanced drills, allowing them to track individuals hidden in the woods, hop on boats to search for submerged divers, take rides on ATVs and more. Officials say that the efforts are geared toward getting the dogs familiar and comfortable with a number of different activities they could encounter in the field, and to help build relationships with their handlers.
“What we want to do is give these dogs the opportunity to experience other disciplines, not so that they can get certified in them necessarily, but so that they have a library of experiences to work off of if they’re ever on a mission,” said Doug Lesch, president of the rapid avalanche deployment program. “Socialization and engagement is a huge part of a dog’s life, especially in the younger years. So this is about getting them comfortable riding in trucks, riding in helicopters and boats, being around loud noises, and working on unsettled and uneven terrain. …
“It also allows the dog to build a stronger bond with their handlers. So that when they ask that dog to do something, the dog has already done all these different activities, and there’s trust there so they understand the handler isn’t going to put them in a situation that’s detrimental to them.”
Acclimating dogs to new experiences, and letting them dive into drills outside their comfort zone is crucial in getting them ready to support their communities. But officials said that taking time to chat with other rescue workers outside of organized activities and taking lessons learned back to their agencies where they can be implemented in the long-term is perhaps the most important aspect of the training.
“It’s not just courses like this, but being able to sit out in the woods and pick an instructor’s brain for a half hour, or having conversations between drills where we share tips and tricks, and tradecraft,” Lesch said. “You get a sense of what it means to be a part of something that’s more than just C-RAD or our local search and rescue, and hear what groups in Utah, California and Idaho are doing. The experience is immeasurable.”
A final goodbye to Recco
As training participants gathered under the pavilion at Windy Point on Wednesday, they took some time to give a final goodbye to Recco, a celebrated rescue dog who passed away late last month, and to recognize her owners John and Andrea Reller for their extensive and ongoing work with rescue and recovery dogs in the area.
“What I can say about John and Andrea since I’ve known them, and with Recco especially, is that I’ve been with them on some recoveries and not only do these dogs become part of the Reller family … but family members for the people they recover and rescue,” said Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons, who presented the Rellers with a plaque acknowledging Recco’s service. “I’ve talked to a lot of these families about the impact and the closure they were able to bring. They have an incredible impact on people’s lives.”
John used the opportunity to thank all of the community members who reached out following Recco’s death.
“Being able to share this with all of you, and so many people has been incredible,” John said. “For the support from day one, and especially this week, thank you so much. It hasn’t been an easy week, but you guys have helped us all get through that. And hopefully we can continue to learn and do great things as we move forward.”
Of the 10 players listed on the varsity roster ahead of Tuesday’s home game with Summit, two were juniors, seven were sophomores and one was a freshman. It’s a far cry from the class of 10 seniors who last season led the Skiers to a perfect 27-0 mark and the Class 3A state championship.