Wyoming’s K-9 search team brings hope to families

JACKSON, Wyo. — It is dark. Under only a few feet of snow, it is impossible to move. The sounds of the people above are almost clear. But any shouts, or even screams, stay trapped below, muffled by frozen walls.

And then the patter of light feet above. A scratching sound, a sliver of light and then the nose of a dog in a flurry of snow.

Members of Wyoming K-9 Search and Rescue have an idea of what it’s like to be trapped in an avalanche, even if they haven’t been in one. Though not in danger, they know how gratifying the sound of rescue can be after time spent in the dark, immobilizing snow.

The K-9 unit is made up of 12 dogs and their handlers. They are separate from Teton County Search and Rescue but help on searches for missing people. They can cover more area faster than human searchers, said Kelly Lewis, president of the group.

The dogs are often the unsung heroes of rescues.

Amanda Soliday and her golden retriever, Roscoe, were called out four times in October. There are probably about 15 rescues a year the group is asked to help with, she said.

Soliday started with the group as a volunteer, hiding for the dogs during trainings. When she got a dog for a pet, she joined. Roscoe is her third dog that has worked with Wyoming K-9.

Sometimes the work is tragic. The first time Soliday helped with a search, it was to find the body of a person who drowned in the Snake River.

But finding a victim’s body, however tragic, can offer relief to the victim’s family, said Cora Pfaff, whose German shepherd, Rohan, is a member of the unit. Pfaff knows firsthand the importance of search and rescue. About four years ago, her nephew disappeared. It was several days before they found his truck and even longer before they found his body. The story didn’t end happily, but at least the family had closure, she said.

The dogs have different certifications like avalanche, water rescue or wilderness, and are called out based on what skills are needed, Lewis said. In total, there are 11 certifications a dog can have.

Wyoming K-9 is part of a larger group that includes Montana, Idaho and Utah. These states have developed a unified set of standards for dogs to gain certification.

The nonprofit group consists of volunteers. They train at least one weekend a month and often gather unofficially other days throughout out the month to keep their dogs sharp, Lewis said. The trainings also help the dogs learn to find people with different scents than their handlers, with whom who they’re used to working.

The dogs train one at a time, and those waiting in cars for their chance to dig through snow to find “victims” bark and whine with anticipation.

The dogs must be brave and willing to try new things, such as riding in helicopters or boats, Pfaff said.

Avalanche training is a progression. The dogs start by following their toy into a cave they see a person venture to. They progress to not seeing where the person is hidden and having “victims” buried beneath several

feet of snow.

Every month the training is different, but the goal is always the same, to find and get to people, whether they are alive or dead, as quickly as possible. In cadaver searches the dogs learn to find human remains buried deep within an elk carcass.

They learn to track living people: those who are lost or children who have run away. They can find them in buildings, in the woods or in neighborhoods.

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