It took a little coaxing at first to convince Panzer, a 3-year-old German Shepherd search and rescue dog in training, to lay down in a basket that hoisted him and his handler 30 feet up in the air, dangling from a spinning cable under a hovering MH-60T Jayhawk.
After a few dry runs, the pup didn’t need any prompting despite the loud engine and winds blowing from above at some 70 to 90 knots.
“The first time I had to shoehorn him in there,” Liam Higgins said after the training session ended, as Panzer lapped up liver treats from his hand. “And the next time, it was a little bit easier, and then when we went out there for the last time, I just pointed at it and he hopped right in.”
Bruce Bowler, the team leader of the Juneau-based K-9 search and rescue team SEADOGS, said that was exactly the point of Sunday’s training exercise: to get their dogs accustomed to being around military helicopters.
“It’s a confidence building exercise,” he said.
A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crew from Sitka came to Juneau to offer the training free of charge. One of the helicopter pilots, Commander Pete Melnick, noted it was also beneficial to them to meet the dogs and handlers. The last time they had done so in one-on-one training was about three years ago, he said.
“Working with the dogs, and the SEADOGS, is very important because it helps get both them and us acclimated to each other,” he said. “The dogs need to get used to the helicopter and the noise and the wind and the uniqueness that a helicopter provides, and we need to get used to being around the four-legged searchers.”
Of the five dogs and six handlers at the training session behind the Alaska Army National Guard facility on Yandukin Drive near the Juneau airport, only one or two teams had been in a Jayhawk before. Since the U.S. Coast Guard does not have operational helicopters based out of Juneau, and because the Sitka Air Station is an hour and a half flight away, SEADOGS members are more likely to hitch a ride to and from searches in other aircraft that are more readily accessible in Juneau. Those options include Civil Air Patrol planes, personal planes owned by Alaska State Troopers, AStar helicopters from Temsco, partnering companies and commercial flights.
“We get there by hook or by crook,” Bowler joked, adding, “Our dogs probably have logged more miles on Alaska Airlines than most people.”
Alaska State Troopers are responsible for coordinating all searches and rescues in the state, and they reimburse any company or person for the cost of the airfare. The Legislature created a special fund for that years ago.
The possibility of a military craft picking up a SEADOGS member is not that remote. SEADOGS, short for Southeast Dogs Organized for Ground Search, serves the entire state, and if they find a missing person, they need to be prepared for whatever vehicle is lifting them out of the area.
“Our motto is Semper Paratus: Always ready,” Melnick said. “Even though we might not have recent history, you never know what tomorrow will bring. Might as well get everybody accustomed to each other.”
On Sunday, the dogs weren’t the only ones benefiting from the training session. The handlers were briefed by the five helicopter crew members on everything they need to know about the Jayhawk from the static electricity it generates to who to look for when taking commands and how to exit the cabin.
Pilot Lt. Chris Enoksen warned that if they touch the metal basket that’s lowered from the helicopter before it touches the ground, they’ll get a powerful shock from the electricity.
“It’ll lay you out,” he said.
Aviation Maintenance Technician Chad Foskey instructed the team how to sit inside the basket, which can fit one person and one dog at a time.
“You gotta hold that dog, and you gotta keep your hands, everything in here, inside,” he said.
As for the swinging motion of the basket as they’re being lifted up? “We’ll try to take it out as much as we can,” he said.
The dogs became familiar with the Jayhawk by jumping in the cabin and sniffing around while the helicopter was still powered off, then practicing the basket hoists with their handlers on the ground while just a small engine was running. They finished with the real deal as the aircraft hovered above the tarmac.
“See? That wasn’t so bad,” dog handler Stacey Poulson cooed at her dog, Sage, who just became SEADOGS certified last year.
Will Metcalf, the handler for a 5-year-old Border Collie named Roland, or “Ro” for short, said he wasn’t sure how his dog would react, but that he did great.
“He’s been around the small helicopters and that doesn’t bother him. I was thinking this might be a little bigger deal, but he did fine,” Metcalf said. “He was a little nervous the first time the engine was running, but he was calm in the basket.”
Geoff and Marcy Larson, co-handlers for a 10-year-old Golden Retriever Jasmine, said she has been in Blackhawks and AStars before but never a Jayhawk.
“She has been doing this a while, we started her when she was a puppy and she was certified when she was 2,” Marcy said.
Higgins said as he is training Panzer to become SEADOGS certified, it’s helpful to expose him to as many new experiences as possible.
“Having the dog do something it’s never done before, it not only builds confidence but familiarity with something that you may need to experience on a real search when you don’t have time to take it slow and gentle,” he said.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.