Archive for Sunday, May 2, 2004

Dog handler trains to save lives

May 2, 2004


— The din that rises from Sherryl White's west Wichita home can at times be deafening.

Go to her door and a Doberman, golden retriever and Boston terrier bark incessantly. Turkeys call from the back yard. And it's not unusual for the donkey to start braying.

White, 59, has shown and trained dogs competitively for more than 25 years. The rest of the animals, she says, are pets.

Now, she and Ruby, the golden retriever, are using that training to make noise in another field: saving lives.

White is a newly trained search-and-rescue technician and canine handler with the National Association of Search and Rescue. She works as a volunteer with the Kansas Search and Rescue Dog Assn.

She and Ruby began training more than a year ago.

"I like the challenge," White said. "It's different than just having a pet that lays around the house. This is something you can do that's constructive."

When Ruby is on duty, she'll do whatever is asked.

Like other search-and-rescue dogs, she's being trained to sniff the air, land and water to search for people. Currently, Ruby is certified for wilderness search and rescue and soon will begin training in cadaver, water and disaster rescues.

Wearing a yellow and black "Search Dog" vest and badge, Ruby responds quickly to White's command of "Go find!"

Experts say it often takes up to two years to certify a dog in search-and-rescue training. The training for the dog's handler is just as time consuming and extensive. The handler has to be certified before the dog.

Handlers and their dogs meet as a group at least once a week to train. They search for things as obscure as a tooth or bloody gauze in night and day situations.

"As far as actively recruiting, we don't recruit," says Joseph Fehrenbacher, duty officer with the Kansas association. "Most of the people who become members come to us by word of mouth. We purposely keep it small so we can give trainees more one-on-one attention."

The state association has 12 dog-and-person teams.

Now in its 10th year, the group has responded to more than 97 callouts in 39 Kansas counties, as well as searches in Oklahoma, Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska. It has assisted local law enforcement agencies and the Kansas and federal bureaus of investigation, and worked on drownings, nursing home walkaways, missing children cases, cadaver searches and disasters.

Last Labor Day weekend, White helped search for victims after the deadly flash flood on Interstate 35.

White says the volunteer search-and-rescue work is one of the most rewarding things she does.

"This is helping someone in need," White said. "Just being part of the team that has the potential to be helping is enough."

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