Breckenridge firefighter, search dog earn their stripes
Ryan Summerlin October 16, 2012
BRECKENRIDGE – On the surface, Hank seems like any other 3-year-old dog, rambunctious, playful and affectionate.
But the yellow lab has a very important job: He finds missing humans.
Hank and his handler, Red, White and Blue firefighter Chris Sutton, were the first team west of the Continental Divide to be invited to join Colorado’s division of the elite federal Urban Search and Rescue team.
Together, Sutton and Hank will now be tasked with finding survivors in the aftermath of natural and man-made disasters.
“He’s the nose and I’m the brains,” Sutton said. “He’s trained to indicate on live human scent – scent that he cannot see.”
For Hank, the search for trapped disaster victims in the midst of chaos is just a game of hide and seek. During his training, people hid from him with a toy. When he found them, he was rewarded with playtime. The practice taught him to actively search out live humans and to bark when he discovers their location.
After a full year of tests and training, Hank and Sutton passed their final exam and landed official certification as a search team earlier this month.
“It’s a great asset for this community,” Red, White and Blue deputy chief Jay Nelson said. “It gives us a dog that can be used in any kind of circumstances, really, from missing victims at a car accident scene to the possibility of a building explosion or building collapse.”
Hank was born in San Diego and raised as a hunting dog by a private owner. He doesn’t talk much about how he got into the search-and-rescue field, but Sutton suspects his personality had something to do with it.
“We screen dogs for extremely high drive,” Sutton said. “Hank certainly fits the bill.”
The lab is exuberant. Sutton said many search-and-rescue canines are given up by owners who can’t handle their high energy levels.
“He’s not a pet,” Sutton said. “They need a job … they need a mission in life.”
When he was about a year old, Hank found his. He was taken on by a trainer who taught him obedience, agility and then search work. After a year with the trainer, in September 2011, he and Sutton became partners.
It took another year of intensive training to prepare both dog and handler to work in the field.
“There were a lot of ups and downs,” Sutton said. “He had a lot to learn, but I had more to learn about being a handler. It’s a lot of teamwork: him trusting me and me being able to trust him.”
Sutton has a background in search and rescue and had worked with avalanche dogs in the past. Becoming a canine handler was something he was already interested in doing when the invitation from Denver’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Force came through.
Now certified, Sutton and Hank are members of a 31-person team and one of only four canine teams on the task force. In the event of a disaster, such as a bombing or a tornado, which might leave survivors trapped under rubble, their team will be deployed within six hours to help local and state emergency responders locate victims and manage recovery work.
The timetable means Sutton and Hank will have to move fast to get to their team in Denver when a notification comes through.
“They have to be able to be responding at the deployment center within two hours,” Red, White and Blue chief Lori Miller said. “They have to be briefed and loaded and … out the door within four hours and on the ground by six hours.”
Not every state has a task force, so Colorado’s team could be called to disasters and emergencies in other parts of the country.
But, for the most part, Hank, Sutton and their unique skills live here in Summit County.
“The national deployment is rare,” Nelson said. “Absolutely (Hank’s) primary mission is taking care of the home front. It’s that added resource.”