Volunteer Tail: Gem, A Show Dog Trained to Save LivesPublished January 24, 2012
Courtesy of Jennifer Bouthilet
Gem finished her championship at 19 months in 2008 and was also well on her way in agility training. She and her owner are now part of a K-9 Emergency Response Team based in Wisconsin. Bouthilet showed dogs in conformation long before getting involved in search and rescue (SAR). A few months before Gem finished her championship, Bouthilet’s mother died, and her father passed away five years prior. Bouthilet then decided that if she was going to spend a lot of time training dogs, it might as well be for something that helped people.
Flat-Coated Retrievers are friendly, intelligent, athletic, and are bred to be sporting dogs due to their active nature. The breed originated in the mid 19th century in England and soon became popular as a gamekeeper’s dog. These dogs are exceptional at tracking and retrieving in hunts. Bouthilet recognized that these very traits in her dog that won her recognition in shows could be useful in locating people lost in wilderness situations.
Gem is trained to be a live-find dog with a re-find, which means that she finds a lost person, comes back to the owner and gives her the ‘indication’ which shows she found someone, and then leads the owner back to the location of the missing person. It takes 1½ to 2 years to train a dog to learn re-find search and rescue. To keep their skills fresh, Gem and Bouthilet train twice a week from spring through fall, and once a week during winter. Some dogs are trained to “stay-and-bark” which is faster and easier, but in hilly terrain, it’s hard to determine where the sound is coming from. At one search and rescue training session, Gem had 90 minutes to find the test subject on 80 acres and she found him in 12 minutes.
Bouthilet finds the search and rescue work very rewarding just for the hope that she and Gem could actually help find someone who is lost. She also loves watching dogs do what they are uniquely equipped to do.
“It’s so much fun to see the dog running through the woods, and then suddenly turn her head and take off in a completely different direction – long before there is anyone visible out there,” Bouthilet said. “The dogs love the ‘game’. Some dogs like tug games, some like food, some like fetch games…Gem likes climbing into the ‘victim’s’ lap and getting snuggled.”
Bouthilet said Gem’s favorite playtime activity is search and rescue.
“She has a particular type of toy with squeakers at both ends that we use with search work. She likes to just sit and squeak until the squeaker is broken.”
Gem and Bouthilet have been on several searches, but the lost person was never in their assigned search area. Unfortunately, the team gets called far more often for cadaver searches, and Bouthilet goes with her other dog Cliff for those assignments. Bouthilet said she might end up cross-training Gem to be a cadaver search dog. Currently, Bouthilet and Gem are in the process of acquiring the skills needed for disaster certification.
Gem’s worlds of being both a show dog and a search dog seem drastically different, but in essence they go hand in hand. In the show ring, Gem is credited for her excellent breed specific qualities, which she puts to use in the real world in an attempt to save lives. Bouthilet said Gem likes search work more than show competition.
“Dog shows are not her favorite venue, though she sure loves getting the food rewards that she doesn’t get during SAR training,” Bouthilet said. “Gem would like it more if the judge would just sit down and let her schmooze. Even so, she usually manages to kiss the judge at least once.”
We hope Gem continues to shine in both areas. You can watch Gem in action at the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship which airs on Saturday, February 4th.
Petside.com is donating $500 to Jennifer Bouthilet's search and rescue team as a big "Thanks!" to Gem and Jennifer!
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