“I was absolutely hooked!”
This is how Los Angeles resident Jody Davidson describes her introduction to the search and rescue work she performs with 3-year-old Clumber Spaniel Josey by her side. For the past three years, the one-time New Yorker has pursued the demanding discipline with the same brash naiveté that got her involved in the dog sport in the first place.
“When I was 11 years old, I read Blanche Saunders’ obedience book and thought, ‘I can do that,‘” she recalls. “So, on my own I did what the book said, and then a few weeks later got on the subway and took my family’s Miniature Poodle to a dog show!”
It was this same ill-informed yet enthusiastic commitment to an idea that has, over the past three years, seen Davidson loading into helicopters, camping solo in Yosemite with only basic survival gear, obtaining Emergency Medical First Responder certification and navigating her way through the wilderness with just a map and compass as she and Josey worked toward achieving Mission-Ready status as a SAR team. According to Davidson, the road to certification has been anything but a walk in the woods.
“If I’d only known what I was getting myself into,” she laughs. “You’d think at my age I would have learned!”
A Clumber Spaniel First
Although she’s been “in dogs” for more than 50 years, Davidson says that nothing compares with the joy she experiences watching her Clumber follow her nose on a trail. “I took a tracking seminar and thought it was fun,” she says. “I became fascinated with what a dog could do, [so] when we moved to California I did some research, contacted CARDA (California Rescue Dog Association) and asked, ‘Can I come out and watch you work?‘” Davidson remembers being astounded by the dogs’ incredible noses and work ethics. “If you’re a dog person, I don’t know how you couldn’t be awed by it,” she says.
Josey is not only the first Clumber Spaniel to be certified with CARDA, but also the first Clumber to be a certified SAR dog and the first to earn the AKC SAR-W (Search and Rescue-Wilderness) title. CARDA is the oldest and largest all-volunteer search dog organization in the US. Its stringent certification requirements have been adopted by other K9 SAR groups around the country. According to Davidson, CARDA has nearly 200 deployable teams, with another 150-plus teams working toward certification. “We are on-call 24/7, not only for our immediate area, but — should the need arise — our state, region and country,” she assures. CARDA-certified teams are not only a direct resource of the California Office of Emergency Services, but they also work with local law enforcement, the National Park Service and FEMA. CARDA members provide search dog services to all public service agencies at no charge. In recent years, they’ve been sent to work the Washington State mudslide, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Davidson and her canine partner have been on half a dozen searches to date in California. “Josey is an urban and wilderness trailing dog, trained to follow a specific scent,” she notes.
Working The Strip
Davidson shares the story of a recent search that took place one night on a well traveled, six-lane LA street. “An elderly individual with Alzheimer’s and dementia had wandered away from a secured care facility,” she says. Davidson was called almost 12 hours after the subject had been reported missing. “What Josey was able to do was go out of the facility and determine the direction of travel,” she explains. “She worked for three solid hours, decisively following the trail down the busy urban street.
“At one point, Josey stopped and showed some interest in a westbound bus bench,” Davidson continues. The Clumber Spaniel trailed along the boulevard for about 11/2 miles, crossed to the other side of the street, and “alerted strongly” on an eastbound bus bench. When asked to check further on, past the bench, Josey gave a strong indication that there was no scent from the subject beyond the bench. “Josey told me clearly that the subject got on this bus, so I was able to relay this information to the authorities.” The police then took the team to the plaza where the bus route terminates and Josey signaled no trace of the subject. Authorities later pulled the bus video to discover the subject had indeed gotten off the bus before the end terminal and taken a subway to his former house. “They found him the next morning, 20 miles away,” notes Davidson. “What Josey was able to do was let officials know the subject had definitely left the immediate search area. Without my dog, dozens of people might have spent hours looking in the wrong place.”
“I was 60 when I started [SAR],” Davidson says. “It took me three full years and 42 ‘sign-offs’ between my dog and me before we could even attempt our Mission-Ready test.” (CARDA’s certification process involves a lengthy apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship period in which dog and handler must have their skill sets signed off by veteran handlers.) “The training is intense because if we fail, the outcome can be devastating,” she says. A single SAR dog team can free 15 to 20 people on a search, so Davidson and her Clumber train a minimum of 10 hours a week. “Even though a search can be a life or death situation, it is always a game for our dogs, a challenging puzzle they love to solve,” Davidson says.
Once certified (and dog teams must recertify every two years), a SAR team must continue to train — at its own expense. “We do this free of charge for our communities,” Davidson says. “My first year as an apprentice I spent about $11,000 just on travel and equipment,” she notes. “My second year cost $15,000.” Although this may seem a great investment, Davidson has no trouble putting her expenses into perspective. “Well, heck,” she says. “You could easily spend that much going to dog shows.”
GCh. Bluemoonrysn Outlaw Josey Wales BN, RN, THDN, TD, CGC has, in fact, been to a few dog shows despite her busy SAR schedule. Josey has more than proven her value to both her breed and her community, and whelped a litter in September. “Hopefully, one of her kids will follow her into the SAR field,” Davidson says.
“I originally chose her because she was a beautiful bitch, not because I’d ever anticipated working SAR,” admits Davidson. “But her breeders created a puppy who truly embodied the best of our breed — beauty, brains, determination, an unbeatable work ethic and an amazing nose. What kept me going through the arduous certification process and keeps me getting out of bed when those calls come in the middle of the night is Josey. Her skill, talent and love of ‘the game’ never cease to amaze me. She’s my partner in every sense of the word, and as long as she arrives at a search happily ready to go to work, I’ll be on the other end of the lead to support her.”