Sheridan woman, German shepherd train for searches


He is powerful, athletic, devoted.

He wears an intelligent expression, ears pricked, eyes alert.

He is Dillon, a German shepherd and certified trailing K9 who works with owner and handler Cathleen Orr of Sheridan.

Dillon celebrated his fifth birthday Friday, and for the past three years, his life has been one of training to develop skills necessary to become a search and rescue dog.

He exudes energy and enthusiasm as Orr works with him on a crisp winter afternoon. He listens intently, following her verbal commands.

"German shepherds are intelligent dogs who need to use their mind," said Orr. "I believe a dog has purpose, talents and abilities. It was important to me to find something for Dillon that he would be good at."

Dillon's breeder, Cel Hope of Sheridan, director of the Dog & Cat Shelter, suggested Dillon might be a good search dog candidate.

Orr began reading and researching, attending seminars and setting about to see if Dillon might qualify. She contacted trainers in Wyoming and Montana, eventually becoming involved with Tri-State-K9 in Helena, Mont.

Dillon was evaluated at Tri-State for his potential as a SAR dog to determine his abilities, confidence, drive, endurance, determination and temperament.

"We look for drive in evaluating a search dog," said Orr. "They require a good prey or hunt drive, the ability to stay with a task _ to go after something and not give up."

There seemed little question that Dillon possessed the traits to be a successful trailing dog _ one directed to follow the scent of a specific person. (Other SAR dogs may be trained in air-sniffing, tracking, or as water, avalanche, disaster or cadaver dogs).

By presenting Dillon with an item belonging to an individual, his nose leads the way in an effort to locate a missing subject.

Orr said a "scent article," such as a dirty sock, hat or glove in a Ziploc bag, can be presented to Dillon before an exercise. His sense of smell is fine-tuned enough, however, to work from a credit card, a piece of chewed gum, even a spot where an individual scuffed his feet.

Orr works with Dillon in harness and on a lead.

In a sea of odors, Dillon's sense of smell _ dozens of times more powerful and discerning than humans' _ can follow the scent of the specific person.

Learning to trail meant countless hours invested in learning commands, harnessing routines, and exercises trailing subjects.

Progress was logged, objectives continually set and met; journals noted successes or areas needing improvement. Orr said training as a handler meant trusting Dillon's instincts.

Orr stated that although trailing is work, Dillon needs to perceive it as a game with rewards and praise when tasks are successfully completed.

"You have to make it fun for the dog," she said. "He's working for the victim and the reward that follows _ and sometimes, locating the victim is the reward."

And when Dillon successfully locates a subject?

"He feels a sense of pride and continues to gain confidence," said Orr.

Dillon, however, is not the only one who has benefited from the training. Orr has excelled at being a handler and said she has come to know herself better through work with Dillon.

"I have learned so much, developed my own sense of confidence, patience and self-control," she said. "We learn from each other, but I feel I have received so much more from him than he has from me."

Orr stated that becoming certified with Tri-State-K9 was a tremendous time investment, apparent when observing the undeniable bond between dog and handler.

Orr, a victim advocate at Advocacy and Resource Center in Sheridan, is also a member of the National Association for Search and Rescue, National Search Dog Alliance, and Wyoming Search and Rescue Association.

She is a certified SAR Technician II, trained in "managing the lost person incident" (training to perform as an initial responder on lost person incidents), first aid, navigation and survival skills.

Orr said she believes the two are the only certified team in the Sheridan area, and although they have not yet been called on a search, they are ready to report when the call comes.

Though trained mainly to work in rural and wilderness settings, Dillon has done some urban training and may eventually be trained as a cadaver dog.

"We just want to be an asset to the community," said Orr. "If a dog can serve his community, what a gift it can be."

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