Four-legged livesavers

The Madera County Sheriff’s Department Search & Rescue team, in cooperation with the California Rescue Dog Association (CARDA) held a training session recently at Soquel Meadows above Bass Lake.

Canine search and rescue teams came from as fare south Los Angeles, and as far north as San Jose, and Sacramento.

CARDA members are volunteers with specially trained dogs dedicated to assisting in the search and rescue for missing persons 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Every handler not only volunteers their time, but also pays for all their equipment, uniforms, travel and meal expenses. Travel to and from training sessions and searches can run more than 10,000 miles a year.

Search dogs are provided to any law enforcement agency in the state at no cost, through the Office of Emergency Services.

It takes about 1,000 hours of training over a two year plus period to train a dog. To assure she always has a partner that is ‘field ready,’ Dyer starts training a young dog two years before her current partner is ready to retire.

All the rescue dogs must obtain mandatory California Office of Emergency Services certification every year in the areas of obedience, agility, the ability to swim and wilderness searches.

Chris Dorfmeier, of Clovis, is the Madera County Search & Rescue K9 team leader, and is also the district representative for CARDA overseeing Madera, Mariposa, Merced, Fresno, Tulare, Kings, Stanislaus, and Mono counties. Five members of the Madera County S&R team have search dogs.

Dorfmeier explained that some of the dogs specialize in ‘trailing,’ searching for a scent specific person, while other ‘area’ dogs search for any person in a large area. Trailing dogs start at a point a person was last seen and are given a scent from a piece of clothing or personal item of the lost person such as a hair brush. The dog will follow the scent until the person is found. Other dogs specialize in cadaver, water, evidence and avalanche searches.

According to Dorfmeier, CARDA members respond to about 80 to 100 searches a year in California.

Handlers must also be proficient in the use of maps and compass, CPR, radio communications and wilderness skills. The Madera County Sheriff's office has collaborated with CARDA since 2004.

Sheriff Jay Varney and members of the county search and rescue team were on site overseeing the training operation designed to test the skill of both novice and veteran handlers.

“Sheriff Varney and his staff did a great job hosting us,” Dorfmeier said. “The training was professionally managed like a real search and our teams received very productive lessons in their respective specialties.”

Varney said that while these highly trained K9 teams aren’t called upon that often in Madera County, they do not hesitate to come when needed.

“Many of these teams come from Southern California and the east Bay,” said Varney. “We’ve always been able to count on them and I still marvel at how they are able to do their job during some of the most grueling missions whether they’re working in triple digit heat or in the dead of winter. These men and women, and their canines, are not only a special breed of volunteer, they are unsung heroes.”

At the end of a long day of training, the Madera County S&R team was called out around 3 p.m., to a ‘real’ search for a 12-year-old autistic boy from Fresno who got separated from family members south of Shuteye Peak. Two of the dog handlers joined other searchers who were under the direction of Lt. Tyson Pogue.

According to Pogue, the boy had no water and had not eaten in several hours. At about 6:30 p.m., Deputy Paul Cheetwood reported he had located the youngster.

Details: Chris Dorfmeier, (559) 824-3062, email