Neiko was set to follow in his father’s paw prints and become a member of the RCMP’s dog section, but a year and a half into his training, he washed out of the academy.
He just wasn’t quite meeting the criteria. He was too friendly.
But the young German shepherd has an exceptional nose that his handler didn’t want to go to waste, so she put the word out to the B.C. Search Dog Association. Four days later, he was at Ryan Morasiewicz’s door, ready to be North Shore Rescue’s newest recruit-in-training.
During a recent training session, it takes Neiko a few minutes and lots of direction from Morasiewicz, but he eventually finds the boot Morasiewicz has hidden and retrieves it.
After Neiko gets plenty of praise and a game of fetch with his ball as a reward, he appears more confident, strutting with his chest out.
“You can actually see that. When you're happy and proud they definitely have a different step to them,” Morasiewicz said.
Neiko’s membership in the team is no guarantee. He must first be screened and pass a series of tests to be validated by the B.C. Search Dog Association.
In the meantime, both Neiko and Morasiewicz will be expected to put in some long hours developing their skills in the field. Typically that involves going out to the woods and hiding people or articles of clothing with human scent on them in a 1,000-square-foot area.
Neiko takes his name from Nicomen Lake near Manning Park, where Morasiewicz has a wilderness cabin. It’s where he takes his dog to train.
Morasiewicz estimates he puts in 10 to 15 hours per week with Neiko, over and above the usual care and attention a dog needs, and all at his own expense.
Realistically, he hopes to have Neiko validated as a search dog by 2021.
Today, there is just one validated search dog on the team: four-year-old Belgian Malinois Chloe.
Steam curls from Chloe’s nostrils as she bounds about the forested area surrounding Camp Capilano looking for Ellie Lamb, a North Shore Rescue volunteer and the team’s first search dog handler.
Scent tends to waft out on the breeze from its source in the shape of a cone. Once the dog has picked it up in its powerful olfactory nerves, it’s just a matter of following it, pacing side to side within the cone, narrowing it down as they get closer.
Within about a minute Chloe has found Lamb hiding behind a massive stump. Chloe’s reward: a satisfying game of tug using her favourite chew toy.
“The whole reason that she searches is because he knows if she makes a find, it incents me to play with her,” said Roger Bean, Chloe’s handler and vice president of the B.C. Search Dog Association. “In her little pea brain, she doesn’t really care about missing people. She cares about tug and food.”
Sadly, Chloe doesn’t have her first confirmed “find” of a lost subject yet. But that doesn’t mean she and other search dogs aren’t incredibly helpful, Bean added.
He estimates Chloe takes part in about one of every five rescues, usually choosing ones where rescuers either don’t know where their subject is or worse, know they’re looking for someone who is unresponsive.
A ground team can cover a wide area on foot but still narrowly miss something in the underbrush. A well trained dog won’t make that mistake. It means rescuers can move on quickly to new areas with a higher degree of confidence, Bean said.
As they gain experience, they become more attuned to anything out of place in the wilderness where any foreign object could be a clue to where the subject has been.
In October, the team was involved in an overnight search for a man who was lost on the Howe Sound Crest Trail. North Shore Rescue team leader Mike Danks recalls volunteers finding a tiny scuff mark off the trail. It wasn’t much to go on, but it was enough for the search dog brought along for the mission.
“The dog came over, picked up a scent from that and just boom, the dog was gone following that track,” he said. “And lo and behold, it came across a pile of papers where the individual had tried to start a fire. That had some dates on it and some credit card numbers, so right away we could confirm it was the person that we were looking for. When they work, they really work very well.”
They’re also helpful when there is no more hope of a rescue, only a recovery. In October, 2017, 24-year-old Carl Couture disappeared somewhere in Lynn Headwaters Regional Park. North Shore Rescue members have since put in more than 1,300 volunteer hours and counting in the search for him.
“(It’s) close to my heart and you hate to see people up there missing. And so we're still to this day going up there and checking out more places and hopefully one of these days we're going to find Carl and bring him home, aren’t we?” Bean asked, now looking down at the dog.
Chloe and Neiko’s talent for finders keepers is bred into them. Search dogs might conjure images of Saint Bernards patrolling the Alps with a cask of brandy on their collar, but search and rescue teams in B.C. favour the Belgian Malinois and German shepherd. They’re well suited for searches thanks to their strong innate hunt drive and pack drive.
“Which means when they're out there, they're not going to quit till they find what they're looking for,” Lamb said.
During the trainings session, a forest critter of some kind chirps from the bushes, but Chloe doesn’t even flinch.
“She just kind of says ‘Working – can’t talk.’ And she goes back to work. She really enjoys her searching,” Bean said.
For some dogs like Chloe, that work ethic can be hard to turn off at home, Bean notes.
“She drives my wife nuts. She always likes to be doing something,” Bean laughed. “She's a bit of a nuisance around the house.”
Neiko, however, is “relatively chill” at home, Morasiewicz said.
“Sometimes he’ll thrust his head in your lap with a toy and say ‘Play with me.’ But other times he's content to just flop out, lay down, chew his own ball or nap,” he said.
North Shore Rescue’s first ever search dog Nan retired after five years of service in January 2019 when it became clear she was slowing down.
In the summer, she was diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy, a nerve disorder that affects older dogs. Very quickly, she lost her ability to walk and in October, North Shore Rescue’s first search dog passed away.
“These dogs – we work with them and we're living with them. There's a lot of investment emotionally and timewise,” Lamb said. “Everything you do, you do as a team and when you lose them, it's a big deal. It is hard to lose them.”
In addition to many helicopter rides into the backcountry, Nan was front and centre for fundraising and public education events.
She was brave but not fearless, carefully assessing the environment before jumping into action, Lamb said.
“She worked it out and then she would go into the fire. She would do what she needed to do. You just always knew that if there was something out there, she would find it,” she said.
Nan also had a keen ability to empathize with other members. She liked men with beards, especially Morasiewicz. When there was a tough call that didn’t end well, Nan took on the role of a therapy dog, Lamb said.
“She had a relationship with everybody on the team, and some, very specially,” Lamb said.
Danks compared Nan’s death to losing a close friend.
Over and above their help in searches, the dogs’ ability to raise morale is one of the biggest benefits they offer, Danks added.
“I think dogs are always a very positive thing to have around for people. They seem to bring a smile to everyone's face and if people are having a hard day, you know the dogs are always there,” he said. “We are very proud to have that resource, especially having three members now that are working with training their dogs up and it's something that the community should be very proud of.”
Today, Lamb is acting as a mentor and trainer for Morasiewicz and Neiko. But there’s a litter of Belgian Malinois puppies out there now, or there will be soon, that has in it the next generation of North Shore Rescue’s search dogs. Lamb has already committed to adopting one.
“So I’ll be starting all over again,” she says.