In the next couple months, Haines could have its only local search-and-rescue certified dog. Right now, canine rescue teams from Juneau are called into Haines or Skagway when there’s a search in need of a dog’s unique abilities. But Joe Oesterling and his two-year-old German Shepherd Hera are close to changing that.
“We have this bond I think,” Oesterling says about his dog Hera. “She knows my mood, and she knows my body language, and what I’m doing a lot of times even before I do.”
They’re standing near Jones Point, about to go on a simulated search mission. They’ve done gradually more difficult hide-and-seek trainings ever since she was puppy. Oesterling wanted to train Hera this way because he’s helped with rescues in Skagway and Haines.
“And I’ve always liked dogs. And I like the idea of combining the two. They’re such amazing animals and they have these tools that we can use to help the community when somebody might need that.”
8-year-old Hayden Jimenez and his dad, Carlos, are the volunteer victims Hera will try to sniff out today.
“[We’re here to] train a dog named Hera to find people that are lost,” Hayden says.
They’ve volunteered many times to help with Hera’s training. They bring with them a walkie-talkie, bear spray, and some snacks.
“I think the best thing would be to have you guys hide over there,” Oesterling says. “Just go in the woods a ways.”
Hayden and Carlos head to their hiding place. Hera will find them with her nose. She’s being trained in air scent search and rescue.
“If you can picture from an individual, if we could see scent as colors, there’d be this big plume coming off of us all the time,” Oesterling says. “So that’s what she’s keying into.”
Oesterling does a radio check with Hayden, and then puts an orange collar on Hera that indicates to her they’re about to start the search. She barks and growls excitedly.
“She’s ready to play the game,” Oesterling says.
Search-and-rescue missions are serious, but for dogs, it’s a game. Oesterling says in every training, there needs to be positive reinforcement at the end. Hera’s reward is a game of tug of war with a pair of Oesterling’s socks.
“We’re good to go!” Hayden says on the walkie talkie.
“Ok!” Oesterling signals to Hera. “Come here, heel. Find em! Get to work!”
Oesterling takes Hera on a path away from Carlos and Hayden. That will make the search longer and build up Hera’s endurance. It’s something they’ve been working on for a while. Oesterling says they’ve trained every day for at least an hour in the past year and half.
They’re training with Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search, or SEADOGS, a non-profit in Juneau.
“I think it’s gonna be a huge impact to Haines and Skagway,” says SEADOGS team manager Bruce Bowler. He says, when they get a call from state troopers to help with a search, it can take four hours or more to organize and get to Haines or Skagway.
Haines firefighter and training officer Al Badgley says rescue dogs from Juneau have only been called into Haines a handful of times in the past 20 years. It takes time and money to bring in a team from somewhere else. Badgley says if Hera gets certified, canines might be used more frequently in searches. And dogs are able to cover a lot of terrain fast.
“The quicker we can respond and the quicker we can get somebody out there, the chances are better that we’re gonna be able to find them when they’re gonna be saved,” Oesterling says.
After about 20 minutes of Hera searching on the false trail, Oesterling starts to lead her back.
“So she’s on scent, right there. You watch her — that zig-zag pattern, and then the way she held her nose up in the air and her ears are forward — that’s telling me she’s on scent.”
“She’s on us,” Carlos’ voice comes through the radio. A few seconds later, Hera comes bounding back to Oesterling.
“Good girl!” Oesterling says. “Show me! Where are they! Let’s go!”
Then Hera gets what she’s been waiting for – her reward. She and Hayden play tug of war with a pair of socks.
“It has to be fun, it has to be a game and it has to be rewarding for her no matter what the outcome is,” Oesterling says. “And so the result of your search might not be something you want to celebrate, but you have to celebrate with your dog. And if you stop that, the dog stops working for you.”
Joe and Hera have pre-testing in Juneau in a couple weeks. Bruce Bowler at SEADOGS says the Haines team should be search-and-rescue certified within a couple months.
Oesterling says knowing they could potentially save someone’s life is a great motivation. But even if they never go on one mission, he says it’ll be worth it because he loves spending time with his dog.
Oesterling is looking for more volunteers to help with Hera’s search-and-rescue trainings. You can contact him at 303-0234.
Note: There was at least one dog certified in search-and-rescue in Haines in the past. Hera will be the only currently certified dog through SEADOGS in Haines.