Search dog retires

'Pepper' served eight years on county rescue squad

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One veteran of Routt County Search and Rescue doesn't have much to say about her time with the volunteer organization.

She prefers to keep her nose to the ground and let her tail do the talking.

Pepper, an 11-year-old border collie mix, has worked alongside rescuers for about eight years, becoming something of a mascot among her human peers. Her faded orange Search and Rescue vest and salt-and-pepper coat are a familiar sight on missions.

But not anymore. The veteran search dog is calling it quits.

"She just got tired of finding people," said her owner, Routt County Search and Rescue member Jim Vail.

More specifically, she got tired of finding dead people. A sad fact of her job was that the majority of the people Pepper found on Search and Rescue missions were deceased.

Regardless of whether people believe dogs comprehend such things, Vail said finding bodies rather than live people obviously bothered Pepper. While she'd happily participate in practice searches, where the "victims" hidden for her to find were always alive and well, she stopped showing interest in participating in real missions.

That's when Vail decided she was ready to retire.

Pepper's replacement has already been found. Five-month-old Bailie has a thing or two to learn about locating the lost and disoriented. Vail expects the frisky pup needs at least another 18 months of training.

He's happy to oblige.

Pepper was Vail's introduction to training dogs for search and rescue missions. What began as a desire to contribute more to the organization became a full-time passion for schooling animals to assist rescuers.

Vail, who is also the area director for Search and Rescue Dogs of Colorado, admits that training Pepper was an education in trust.

"The dog has the ability to do it all," he said. "The dog has all the tools. It's the people who need to learn what the dog can do."

Vail invested much time in Pepper and intends to do the same with Bailie because he values their breed's qualities.

Trainers look for search dogs with strong play drives and work ethics. Border collies possess those traits, he said.

"Pepper really likes to play," Vail said. Her reward for finding a lost hunter or hiker is a game of Frisbee.

Pepper's first find was a bit anticlimactic. Vail remembers Search and Rescue getting a call to locate a lost hunter. It was a chance for the then-young border collie to prove herself.

Pepper never got an opportunity to strut her stuff because her first mission was over before it began. Rescuers didn't expect a response when they yelled the hunter's name on their way out, but the man answered.

"He just walked out," Vail said.

Subsequent missions have given Pepper a chance to demonstrate her first-rate skills.

Behind every find, though, is hours of practicing for the real thing. Dress rehearsals can't happen without a volunteer Hansel or Gretel, so Vail spends a fair amount of time recruiting people to get lost.

Some of the usual suspects are Search and Rescue members Scott Havener and Mark Steur.

The pay is lousy. The scenery is stagnant. But someone has to do it.

"You go and find a place to sit ... preferably in the sun, and wait until the dog finds you," Havener said.

Thankfully, Pepper doesn't leave the wannabe wayfarers in the woods all day.

"It doesn't take Pepper long to find you," Steur said.

Havener is training his yellow Labrador for Search and Rescue missions. Four-year-old Duke will join Sandy Witte's border collie mix, Schwar, on future searches.

But even with new recruits in the wings, members of Search and Rescue agree Pepper's absence won't go unnoticed.

"Pepper is an impressive dog," Havener said. "Jim has a gift of working with dogs."

Her retirement isn't absolute. While dry-land searches are out, Vail still intends to use her to help locate drowning or avalanche victims.

"She's not going anywhere," he said.

It seems Bailie has big paw prints to fill.


-- To reach Danie Harrelson call 871-4203

or e-mail dharrelson@steamboatpilot.com

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