Getting to know the El Paso County Search and Rescue dogs

11 News had a chance to get up-close and personal with the pups of El Paso County Search and Rescue.
Published: Nov. 11, 2022 at 10:43 AM MST|Updated: Nov. 11, 2022 at 10:51 AM MST
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EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. (KKTV) - Meet the El Paso County Search and Rescue dogs!

They’re cute -- but they also serve a crucial purpose.

“If we have a lost individual that we’re trying to find and we can get a scent article, something the person’s worn, sometimes the doorjam of their car, we can scent our dogs off of that and have them try to search an area where we think a person is. It can be extremely effective in expediting finding an individual versus just finding them on foot,” said EPCSAR spokesperson Kyle Green.

Like their human counterparts, these dogs are all volunteers ...

“Each of these dogs are our personal dogs. So as volunteers on the search and rescue team, we volunteer our time, our money, our effort to do this. Also, these dogs, these are our personal house dogs. So we’ve simply taught them to be search and rescue dogs because they find the energy and the drive in the game of search so interesting that we bring them into the team,” said Green.

... who are on call 24/7/365 just like their owners.

“If it’s a mission that requires a dog, or that a dog is useful, we’ll get a call on our alert system and they’ll ask for canines to attend. We’ll call in and say, ‘Hey, I’m ready to go, my dog’s ready to go,’ we pack up all of our gear and drive to the start point,” said EPCSAR field team leader Tom Spencer.

Spencer is currently training little Boomer, a red bone coonhound who, at just 9 weeks old, was practically swimming in his “canine-in-training” vest.

“He will grow up to be part of the search and rescue team. We’re already training him,” Spencer said.

Dogs can learn to be search and rescue pups at any age, but when they start as puppies, training begins as a simple game, Spencer told 11 News.

“When we start out with puppies like this, we start out very easy with what we call runaways. So the puppy runs; we encourage the puppies to run and chase someone to establish the start of the game for us, the start of the search and rescue game for the puppy.”

It’s similar for adult dogs learning the job, said Green, whose dog Ranger is also part of the EPCSAR canine team.

“Really, it’s a continual training process. Their initial training starts with just teaching them what the game of search is. Because to these dogs -- these are very high-energy, high-drive dogs, and search is the greatest game they’ve ever played. So initial training is just teaching them that if they take this scent and they find this scent, they get rewarded, and that is a game, and that is fun. And so that is the way we begin training them. And eventually we start teaching them different ways of doing searching.”

Veteran search and rescue pups can reach a point where they don’t even need to know where a lost hiker may have trekked.

“Some of the dogs, they don’t need to know where the person walked, they simply need to be able to smell the person in the air, and they’ll be able to find their way to them. And each of those has a different way of training that is months or years’ worth of working with our dogs to get them to be able to do that, to play the game and enjoy the game that of search,” Green said.

Puppies like Boomer still have a while before they’ll be able to go out in the field for real.

“They’re required to be certified by NASAR (National Association of Search and Rescue) and they have to be at least a year to be certified. ... Boomer has time to get trained and to train me,” Spencer said.

Also like their owners, dogs can spend hours on the job.

“We’ve been on some pretty long ones,” Spencer said. “The longest trailing mission that I’ve been on was about eight hours.”

And they’re capable of traveling across even the roughest terrain.

“They go right where we go, up in the rocks and in the mountains, wherever the person might be, where we might look for that person,” Spencer said.

But the hard work is always worth it, he added.

“We’ve been on a lot of missions; certainly the most memorable ones are the ones where we have a happy outcome, and the dog meets the person we’re looking for and it’s all happiness at the end with licks and dog slobber and everything else.”

El Paso County Search and Rescue is, as stated above, an all-volunteer organization. They take new members annually. The deadline to apply this year is Nov. 15. For more information on EPCSAR, click here.

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