You’re lost and cold; the sun’s setting and your leg’s broken. At this point you probably are thinking you will never make it out of this situation alive. You’re right, you wouldn’t if it wasn’t for a search and rescue team with a four legged tracking machine: a search dog.
Search dogs are one of the most valuable and versatile tools a search and rescue team can have. They have the ability to track scents on the ground, in the air, at night, in the snow and even in the water.
Unfortunately, you can’t just go pick up any dog and expect them to be able to perform these tasks; only through countless hours of training is it possible to have an effective and useful search dog. This makes the search dogs trainers equally valuable. On the Iron County Search and Rescue team Cedar City local Pam Williams is the woman tasked with training dogs and teaching others to do the same.
Williams grew up in California where her dad trained bird dogs, where her passion for dogs and training them grew. When Williams first moved to Cedar City there wasn’t a canine search and rescue team or even a trainer.
“Twenty-five years ago you couldn’t Google or go to YouTube and watch how to train, so I kind of just did it on my own,” Williams said. She worked with her German shepherd on her own for several years until she saw a documentary with Dr. Jean Hooks, from Hurricane, training search dogs. Williams got in contact with Dr. Hooks and began training with her. It was during her time with Dr. Hooks that Williams learned that a dog needs what she called a “drive” or a willingness to search for a person and not stop until they find them in order to be a good search dog.
There are challenges when training search dogs. When asked, Williams said she felt the most difficult part is “Trusting my dog. Seriously. Especially with tracking because I know I’m not seeing the footprints and I’m relying on my dog knowing that he’s following the scent.”
Another thing Williams stressed was the importance of getting dogs certified in the disciplines they will be working in. According to her, the most important part of training a search dog is commitment. Owners of search dogs need to be ready to put in just as much work as they expect out of their dogs. When someone’s life is on the line, it’s important that the dogs are properly trained and ready.
Williams had one last piece of advice to give to those thinking of getting a search dog: “Be prepared to dedicate yourself, too. You can’t decide, ‘I think it would be really cool to have a search dog.’ There’s more to it than that. And if you’re busy with work or you’re busy with school or busy with other stuff you don’t really have the time. You can’t do it once a month. So if you’re going to do it, plan on it. It’s a dedication. You’ve got to follow through.”