Two teenage girls lost in Algonquin Park were found safe with the help of an Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) search and rescue dog. The girls had become separated from their camping group on July 11, 2019, and were located in good condition the following Monday. Their safe return highlights the important work dogs do in search and rescue.
In addition to the OPP Canine Unit, search and rescue in Ontario is supported by highly-trained certified civilian search and rescue dogs. These K9 units are part of volunteer search and rescue teams governed by the Ontario Search and Rescue Volunteer Association (OSARVA), a provincially recognized, not-for-profit organization that has a memorandum of understanding with the OPP.
To become an OPP/OSARVA certified K9 unit requires dedication and training. Before specializing as a K9 unit, a handler must certify with OSARVA as a ground searcher. Susan Read, a K9 handler with Georgian Bay Volunteer Search and Rescue (GBVSAR), says handlers need to develop strong navigational skills because “the dogs don’t sit and wait while you fiddle with your compass or GPS. Once those dogs are ready to go, you also have to be ready to go. You’ve got to be quite the ninja with your navigational equipment.”
The dogs typically require about a year and half to two years of training before they’re ready to attempt certification, says Read. They must first pass a pre-test set by the OSARVA Provincial Canine Coordinator before going on to test with the OPP. There are currently four certified civilian dogs in Ontario, an indication of how difficult the testing process is.
The work doesn’t stop once the dogs are certified. “You have to certify every year, so once your dog certifies once doesn’t mean you can sit back on your laurels,” says Read, adding that training and sharpening skills is a continuous process for K9 units.
K9 units are tested on the different strategies used when searching for a lost person. One is tracking, where the dog puts their nose to the ground and smells for human odour. Another is ground searching, where the dogs search in a particular area by raising their nose into the air and smelling for a person or dropped items. Once they find a lost person, Read’s dogs are trained to perform a bark and hold, remaining next to the person and barking to alert their handler.
Dogs that excel in search and rescue must be physically capable of covering long distances over tricky terrains. But they also need a winning personality: confident, friendly, and outgoing. The dogs that do the best are herding and sporting breeds, like German shepherds and Labrador retrievers. “Work ethic is essential in rescue work, as is a dog who is focused and able to work through distractions,” says Read.
Read works with a herding breed called Belgian Malinois, also known as Belgian shepherds. She advises that owning a working Belgian Malinois is not for the faint of heart. “You can certainly go to a breeder and get a lovely Malinois who can adapt well to just chilling at home. You can get the ones that are more geared towards sports, so they might excel at obedience and agility. If you get a true working Malinois, these are hard-nosed, driven dogs that tend to be quite difficult to live with.” Read says these dogs are always on the go, very intelligent, and always need to be stimulated.
Luckily for these hard-working animals, the life of a search and rescue dog is full of adventure. The dogs are deployable anywhere in the province, and they often go through additional training to ensure they’re travel-ready. This can include training to travel in a canoe, ride in an ATV, and even fly on a seaplane.
Next time you head outside, avoid becoming lost in the first place by adopting the motto of Boy and Girl Scouts: be prepared. That includes bringing all required safety equipment and essentials like water and a navigation device, as well as having the training and knowledge to be out in the wilderness.
Read also emphasizes the importance of creating a trip plan. Trip plans include information about your destination, travel route, packed equipment, and expected return time. You can simplify the process by going digital; a national program called AdventureSmart has created a free smartphone app that allows users to easily generate a trip plan and send it along to family and friends.
If you do find yourself lost, stop the moment you realize you don’t know where you are and stay in one place. This simplifies the tracking process for both ground searchers and the dogs, says Read. “As you soon you realize you’re lost, you stop and stay put. It’s that simple.”