Community grieves loss of celebrated rescue dog Recco |

Community grieves loss of celebrated rescue dog Recco

Recco, a renowned search and rescue dog in the area, passed away last month.
Photo from John Reller

KEYSTONE — The Summit County community suffered the loss of one of the area’s most accomplished service dogs last month.

Recco, an 11-year-old golden retriever, died due to cancer on Sept. 24 after years of service with the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment program, along with a number of other search and rescue groups around the state and beyond. 

“It really hurts,” said John Reller, who owned Recco with his wife Andrea. “Obviously there was a great bond. And all the good stuff that we were able to do with her, and the incredible experiences we got to enjoy with her makes it tough at the end. She was a partner, someone who was with us an awful lot, and was with one of her handlers just about every day.

“We feel like she’s not just our dog, but everybody’s who has made an investment to help train her, to work with her. There are a whole lot of people, more than we will ever really realize that played a part in what kind of dog she became. So it’s something where everybody should take some pride and ownership in her accomplishments.”

Photo from John Reller

John and Andrea Reller were part of a founding group that helped lay the groundwork for Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment, or C-RAD, a volunteer organization that specializes in the training and use of dog teams for avalanche search and rescue missions.

The Rellers adopted Recco in 2009 when she was just 9 1/2 weeks old, and she’s been working in various search and rescue capacities ever since. John said she was still active throughout the summer, but was diagnosed with cancer in late August. She died about a month later.

Recco spent much of her time in Summit County, on call at the Copper Mountain and Arapahoe Basin ski areas and ready to deploy in the event that someone was buried in an avalanche, and in need of a special nose to help find them. In addition to her work with C-RAD, Recco also assisted with the county’s water rescue team, frequently participated in wilderness search and rescue operations, and was skilled in detecting human remains.

John estimated that Recco participated in between 80 and 100 missions in her life, including more than 20 separate body recoveries from avalanches and drownings, and several other instances where she was able to locate missing individuals in the backcountry or under the snow.

Those who knew her said her loss is a significant one for the search and rescue world.

“When we lose any of our dogs it’s devastating for us as handlers and as a community,” said Hunter Mortensen, former board member of C-RAD. “The hard part is trying to express that loss to the bigger community outside of the rescue world who don’t realize what these dogs are capable of doing to take care of the community as a whole.

“Not just in Summit County, but Recco in particular has actually worked across the Mountain West and has been called to help in other states. When you lose a dog of that caliber it’s really difficult. The best comparison I can make of Recco is she was the Wayne Gretzky of the avalanche and search and rescue world. She was ‘The Great One.’ It’s going to be unbelievable thinking about going into this winter without her having the community’s back.”

John said that in addition to her work in the field, Recco also helped to break down barriers in other organizations and agencies that were skeptical about the efficacy of rescue dogs until they saw her in action.

Photo from John Reller

Individuals who worked with Recco also said that she was invaluable in helping to train new dogs, who would watch her run through drills to see how it’s done, and that she provided excellent coaching for her handlers as well. 

“Special is an understatement in terms of what she meant to us at C-RAD,” said Doug Lesch, C-RAD president. “During her time at Copper she worked with not just John, but a bunch of other folks, and really trained a huge group of humans as well. … Recco was probably the single biggest influence on dozens of dog handlers around the state and probably the western United States, and really set the benchmark for what a high-quality working dog is.”

Reller said that Recco had an almost preternatural feel and dedication for the job — whether it was searching widespread areas of open snow for a buried skier or spending hours on end hunched over the edge of a boat — and that her absence would certainly be felt by the rescue community.

“She was an amazing dog,” Reller said. “It wasn’t just the way she worked when she was searching, but everything she did on site like recognizing people who were upset and comforting them. She understood the big picture of what we went out to accomplish each time. … We are all going to feel the loss of Recco for a long time, but there’s a sense of pride and a sense of purpose knowing that we have to keep her legacy alive. And keep training good dogs for the next mission.”

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