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Search & rescue K9s vital to California
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A German shepherd rescue dog with trainer Jess Baker puts on a demonstration for the Manteca Unified law enforcement and fire services First Responders class at the school district office. Baker is a retired sergeant from the Kern County Sheriffs Office. - photo by GLENN KAHL/The Bulletin

The value of search and rescue dogs throughout the state was demonstrated before Manteca Unified School District’s law enforcement and fire service students in the Academy’s “First Responders” program.

Instructor James Ward brought two German shepherds and three trainers to the campus from CARDA Search Dogs representing the California Rescue Dog Association (CARDA). Following a classroom orientation with three trainers who put the canines through their paces, students followed the action through the school farm located to the north of the school district offices.

There are three to four students who plan to go into law enforcement. The rest of the 20 classmates hope for a career in fire services.

The training officers from CARDA included Carol Shapiro, a current trauma nurse in Roseville and Michelle Boyes a recently retired Sacramento County Sheriff’s lieutenant.  The third trainer was Jess Baker recently retired from the Kern County Sheriff’s Office as a sergeant.

CARDA was founded in 1976 and is the largest non-profit 501 (c)-3 volunteer search dog organization in the United States. It has participated in thousands of missing persons searches and has saved public safety agencies million of dollars through the use of its volunteer services.  Its mission is to train, certify and deploy highly qualified search dogs to assist law enforcement and other public safety agencies in the search of lost and missing persons throughout California.

The Manteca class split up and followed the three trainers into the field to personally observe the dogs’ reactions to the trainers’ commands.  When they found the scene and followed what they were looking for, the dogs would just sit down and signal their finds.

The non-profit’s services are provided free of charge to the requesting agencies and to the families of the lost person or persons free of charge.  No family or agency has ever been charged for CARDA services.  CARDA members incur all costs of their operations including, gas, vehicles, training, equipment and dog expenses.

“We rely on donations from the communities to continue supplying this vital service,” a CARDA spokesman said.

There are currently some 120 certified dog teams working throughout the state.  In addition to the mission-ready dog teams, there are also 113 active members without a currently certified dog, 86 apprentices working towards mission-ready status and 22 pre-apprentice members along with 26 support members.

The CARDA members participate in 200 to 400 searches annually with many taking time off work to join others in vital searches and training exercises as well as driving thousands of miles a year. 

The assignments for teams include searching for an overdue hiker or hunter in a wilderness area, seeking out an Alzheimer’s patient who has wandered away or finding a missing child or a drowning victim in a lake.  The dogs are also used to search an area that may contain buried human remains.

The minimum training standards for CARDA members include becoming an emergency medical responder, having become proficient at CPR, studying map, compass and GPS navigation, survival skills, radio communications, helicopter operations, crime scene preservation, scent movement, man tracking, incident command systems, low-angle rescue and rope skills and litter/patient transport. 

Most dog handlers have additional training areas such as canine first aid, technical rescue and amateur radio.  The search and rescue dogs are “extremely socialized” and represent a wide variety of breeds being exposed to an equally wide variety of conditions and are tested extensively for their temperament.

Instructor James Ward said he is hoping CARDA will return next year to offer a subsequent demonstration of the working canines for his students.