Four-legged cops aid Kauai's finest

BY ANNE E. O'MALLEY, Special to Kauai Island News

This article and photos by Anne E. O'Malley first appeared in the June 23, 2006 issue of Kaua'i Island News.

Being a dog handler or a ground pounder for the Kaua'i Search and Rescue Canine (K-SAR K-9) unit involves a lists of musts. Must love dogs. Must love dirt. Must love hiking, running and crawling on uneven terrain. Must have an extremely understanding and supportive employer.

Chad Pacheco (left) and Kalei Suzuki (right) with Turbo, a Malinois Belgian Shepherd.

Must be committed, because there's weekly training, and an ongoing certification process to meet national standards. And must be willing to pull your wallet out of your pocket, because you'll need to support your new gear habit - boots, safety helmets, packs, equipment and more. It's a must list that might not be for everybody, but it works for the 20 members of the all-volunteer, nonprofit group that go out on a moment's notice when deployed by the Kaua'i Police Department (KPD).

Such a deployment occurred in March, when they worked alongside agencies involved in the Ko Loko Reservoir breach disaster. "We were very grateful we had the opportunity to serve our community, because this is what we train so many hours for," says Kuma Davis, president of K-SAR K-9. "This was a totally unexpected search for us, it was out of the norm, but the team really came together and we felt we made a significant contribution."

Ironically, the day of the disaster, Davis and another team member were on O'ahu in a training being given by Shirley Hammond, who he calls one of the top SAR dog handlers in the nation. Hammond, who'd participated in the aftermath of the terrorist activities at the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City, flew to Kaua'i to participate.

The Ko Loko disaster was a reason to spur the unit on to certify in cadaver, or Human Remains Detection (HRD). "We've been on many searches where cadaver [HRD) is important, but the large majority of our searches really don't involve that," says Davis.

Azi Turturici with Teddy, her Yellow Labrador Retriever.

"We knew there was a need for it, but it slapped us upside the head and said, 'It's time to do it, get certified.'" SAR K-9 units may certify in detection in numerous areas - wilderness; trailing; cadaver, or human remains; urban disaster - for example, investigating in collapsed buildings and structures; avalanche; drugs; underwater and more.

Handlers and dogs both must train for and test in each area to be certified. In addition, there are SAR K- 9 unit members who don't have dogs. They call themselves ground pounders, but the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) that certifies SAR K - 9 units, calls them search technicians (SARTECHs). They, too, must be certified and may acquire various levels of certification. They have specialties in areas such as navigation and footstep tracking.

And somebody has to manage ops at base camp. "Ground pounders have their place, for sure," says Davis, himself a SARTECH. "A lot of times, there are areas where we can't use dogs." One of the major duties of a SARTECH is to flank the handler, watching out for danger. This frees the handler to focus on the dog - not on where the dog is going. Says Davis, "Handlers don't go out without them."

On a regular training day - every Sunday from 7 a.m. to noon - handlers and ground pounders team up and get to work. This day, in the fields of Hanama'ulu, handler Jim Turturici, with nearly four years in the unit, is working his dog Amber, a Yellow Labrador Retriever.

Peter Kahapea (left) Russell Fu (right).

What: Search and Rescue canine unit deployed by Kaua'i Police Department to help in search and rescue

Typical Assignments: More than half of the team's callouts are for tracking elderly folks with Alzheimers or dementia. Other uses of the unit include tracking persons with mental health issues; and finding missing children. Team also does school and other presentations.

Next Training: SARvival, July 14-16 for previously identified new members. Approximately 50 hours of training including class work, field work and more. "Basically, you're cut loose overnight with what you've got on your back," says Kuma Davis, K-SAR K-9 president.

Requirements to join the KSAR K-9 unit: See the "musts" list at beginning of the article. Reference time and money-a certification might cost you anywhere from $200 to $600. Veterinarian bills - doggy shots must current and injuries occur in training - cuts, abrasions ankle and paw sprains, for example. Gear - In first year alone, probably close to $1,000.

Donations: K-SAR K-9 is a 501 c 3 nonprofit organization. Make checks payable to: K-SAR K-9 Unit and mail to K-SAR K-9 at POB 173, Kilauea, HI 96754.

K-SAR: Rewarding to watch dogs work. "When a dog wears a vest, knows it's working," says Turturici. Amber's work is hide and seek - er - trailing. SARTECH Sal Ochoa goes a considerable distance out of Amber's sight before crouching in the bush. Turturici travels with Amber, who's hot on Ochoa's scent. Amber finds Ochoa.

Ochoa usually works with his daughter, Alexis, who's not at this training. He says, "She's part of the 'ohana and I think of this bonding as a family." It has to be a family unit. Egos submerge, dog talent rules and the job gets done. Handler Azi Turturici works her dog Teddy, also a Yellow Labrador Retriever. Teddy finds hidden SARTECH Chad Pacheco and Pacheco and Turturici discuss the operation.

Jim Turturici, Amber, his Yellow Labrador Retriever, and Sal Ochoa after Amber successfully 'found' Ochoa.

Says Pacheco, "It's amazing to watch a dog catch a scent, take off towards the person, find them, come back and give an alert." Pacheco, who's been with the team the longest, is by day a chef at the Princeville Resort. Davis, who gives plenty of mahalo to all the employers the K-SAR K-9 unit members, says, "You know how tough is to get time off from hotels, especially working as a chef?" "But he pulls it off.

Or he comes out and he searches for 12 hours and then he goes to work and he comes back and searches. "He gets an hour's sleep and then he searches again. He's a young guy, though, so he can do that," he adds with a laugh. Certainly, there's something that appeals to the people who get involved in this kind of work, but what is it? "I know one person in particular who has been rescued before, so it's kind of a payback," says Davis.

"Most of the people who get involved are pretty active or have led active lives - surfing, sailing, something like that - and now they just want to turn their efforts towards something that serves people more." Davis continues.

"There's just so many reasons for people to be there," he says. "The big one is people just want to help and they love their doggies. "There's nothing more rewarding than to go out there and watch their doggy work, and they're having fun when they're working, because we make it fun for the dog."

Davis, a military brat who grew up mostly around the San Diego, California area, used to spend summers with his grandfather, who raised Black Labradors as bird dogs and later began training them for use as seeing-eye dogs.

During his childhood, Davis' family had two dogs at different times. Before moving here in 1991, Davis was a fireman. A desire to help in his community and his love of his beautiful Catahoula Leopard Hound dogs spurred him and his partner, Juliet Moncrief, to get involved in canine search and rescue. "We have these beautiful hound dogs and they were sitting around on the couch watching TV," says Davis.

Chad Pacheco discusses a completed exercise with Azi Turturici, whose Yellow Labrador Retriever, Teddy, is a SAR dog.

They looked at and tried various activities. "And then we heard about the Search and Rescue Team and I thought, bingo! There we go," says Davis. The couple has five dogs and actively trains two in SAR - Tigger and Milo. "But Tigger's the one. She's the star of the show," says Davis, comparing Tigger to his and Moncrief's other dogs.

"She's got all of the certifications. Milo's never really panned out, so I've never really certified him, though I still keep training him on a limited basis." It's a commitment, and a serious one. Consistency is important, and as Davis totes up the Sunday mornings and optional Wednesday evenings plus the time team members spend on their own - some of them with more than one dog - it adds up to about 30 to 40 hours a month.

With a dog or on your own as a ground pounder, K-SAR K-9 may be your cup of tea,. But be aware that it may not always work out. Says Davis, "My first dog didn't pan out and it's really heartbreaking, first to come to the realization yourself that it's not gonna happen. It's hard for the handler to swallow.

"And then it's tough on the dog, too, because you introduce this dog to kind of a lifestyle for awhile, getting up early, it's the thrill of the hunt and the whole thing, and then all of a sudden you yank em out and they give you the big eyes. When you leave in the morning, they know, when you're putting your boots on and stuff, they know."

One K-SAR K-9 moment. About two years ago, the Kaua'i Search and Rescue canine unit searched for a 93-year-old man missing a number of days and nights. "When someone is out that many nights, the mood changes, Because you start looking at the possibility of recovery instead of a rescue," says Kuma Davis, K-SAR president. "I remember that morning, the elation of hearing over the radio that we found him. "Just making the find - someone alive and well - the reward is without description. I can remember I smiled so hard my eyes watered. It's just a huge relief."