Volunteer and canine partner are certified in searching | RecordCourier.com

Volunteer and canine partner are certified in searching

by Andy Bourelle

When Douglas County Search and Rescue volunteer Karie Paganini talks about her teammate, she uses words such as independent, inquisitive and very smart.

But those characteristics are not necessarily what set Paganini’s teammate apart from other volunteers – it’s the fact that her partner is a dog.

Paganini and Black-bear-y, a female black German Shepherd, comprise Douglas County’s first search dog team. The two were certified in March. Shortly after their certification, Paganini and Black-bear-y each received a plaque from Douglas County Search and Rescue – and a standing ovation from its members.

Now, if hikers, hunters, skiers or anyone is missing in the wilderness, Douglas County has another resource to help find them.

The status of being a certified search dog team is an accomplishment the two have been working for since January 1996, when Black-bear-y was only 4 months old. Paganini, already on the search and rescue team at the time, had decided to pursue the goal when Black Mountain Shepherds in South Lake Tahoe offered to donate the dog to Douglas County Search and Rescue.

The two have been training together and living together ever since. Trained by Wilderness Finders, Inc. (WOOF) out of Marin County, Paganini estimates the two worked more than 2,000 hours in 26 months.

For 13 months, the duo worked on tracking. In tracking, the dog must be able to find a missing person working from a “scent article” belonging to them. The next 13 weeks were spent on air scenting, where Black-bear-y was required to be able to pick up a scent and follow it, as the scent gets stronger, to the victim.

Black-bear-y is not the only member of the team who had to train, however. Paganini must also be physically fit, trained in mountaineering skills, rope evacuation techniques and avalanche awareness. She also must be certified in advanced first-aid, CPR and EMT. And last but not least, Paganini has to be able to work with Black-bear-y in emergency situations.

“She and I are a team,” Paganini said.

To become certified, the team had to pass a complicated test. Out in the forest, they had to rescue two victims from a simulated plane crash. The simulation tested Paganini’s map, compass and medical skills, and it tested Black-bear-y’s air scenting.

“If you do adequately on the test, or actually above adequate, then (WOOF) will pass you,” Paganini said. “They decide if they think I can go out into the forest by myself, with the dog, and they’re not going to have another victim. They showed their confidence in us by passing us.”

The team is certified in the category of area search, which is required by all search dog teams. Having the area search certification, now they can concentrate on being certified in other categories, such as avalanche, water or evidence searches. Paganini said their next goal is to be certified in tracking/trailing, because Black-bear-y is almost ready for it.

While the team is the first of its kind in Douglas County, their responsibility is larger than that. As a certified WOOF team, Paganini and Black-bear-y can be called into any part of Nevada or northern California. Only about 15 to 25 teams cover that jurisdiction.

Paganini said she and Black-bear-y could not have achieved this status, or be able to provide this service to the community, without the help of both Douglas County Search and Rescue and WOOF.

“We couldn’t have done it without Douglas County Search and Rescue. They were very supportive,” Paganini said. “And we couldn’t have done it without WOOF, either. I’m very appreciative of both of them.”

Paganini and Black-bear-y continue to train and practice, but they haven’t actually been in a rescue situation yet. Although they have answered two calls, both times the missing people were found before Paganini and Black-bear-y were needed.

However, Paganini is happy to be certified and ready to help.

“I’m still walking on air. The pressure was on to pass the test and to get certified, but I know the next time it happens it’s real,” she said. “That brings me back down to earth, because someone’s life will literally be in our hands.”

When she is not training, Paganini is a hair stylist. She said she is not yet sure how she is going to “juggle” her life when she is needed for an emergency when she has appointments. However, most of her clients already know of her involvement with Douglas County Search and Rescue and are understanding when she needs to cancel an appointment.

“I’ll do my best to make any callouts, but I don’t want to compromise my clients,” she said. “Most of them are very supportive, though. Most people know how important a service it is. If it was their loved one, or husband or child that was lost out there, they would want me to go help.”

Douglas County Search and Rescue is a non-profit, all-volunteer organization that conducts wilderness and downed-plane searches and mountain and water rescues. The group is seeking volunteers for an upcoming June training session. For more information, residents are encouraged to call Douglas County Search and Rescue at 782-9930.

The Record-Courier E-mail: rc@tahoe.com

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