Whether the object of the search has climbed a tree, burrowed under dry leaves or been buried by an avalanche, Minnie can find him.
"She's retired now, but I still take her to workouts because she loves them so," said Kirk Radach, Minnie's handler, as Minnie panted and lolled her big pink tongue after a bit of exercise near the Mendenhall Glacier.
Although most of Minnie is black, her white paws and grizzled muzzle reveal her age, 8. She's an experienced canine member of Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search, or SEADOGS.
"She knows when it's Tuesday. She wants to get out there with the other SEADOGS: Guinness, Brisbane, Ruby and Cedar. She mopes around the house until it's time to do something," Radach said.
"Any time she hears the radio, she gets excited. She waits for directions. And when she finds her target, I play tug-of-war with her with a rope. That's her reward," he said.
Minnie sometimes flings the red rope into the underbrush in her high state of glee - or perhaps to see what Kirk will say.
It's not necessarily a purebred dog that makes a good SEADOG, Radach said. Minnie, for example, is black Labrador and mutt. What makes a good search dog is the urge to retrieve, Radach said.
It takes about two and a half years to train a search and rescue dog. Trainers start by teaching the dogs to come from 20 to 30 yards away. When wind currents make finding someone difficult, trainers use radio communication from the hiding person to the dog handler to simplify matters. It's important that the dog gets positive reinforcement, Radach said.
More important than breed is "good problem-solving skills," Radach said. "I just tag along and follow her around."
Finding a suitable dog is "kind of a crap shoot," said Radach, who got Ki, Minnie's understudy, from a neighbor's dog with an unplanned litter. "You look for a dog that is a working breed, has a good coat, loves to please, likes to play and likes to retrieve."
Minnie has one official find to her credit, in spring in Wrangell several years ago.
"The man we were looking for was a loner who only came into town once a month. When he didn't show up, they started searching for him. He had committed suicide with a shotgun about a month before. He was sitting on a log. His thumb was on the trigger," Radach recalled.
Minnie signals a find by dashing to Kirk and giving him a body block by leaping at his chest. Kirk orders, "Show me," and the two run together to the find.
Radach, 39, a network administrator for the state Department of Law, became involved with SEADOGS nine years ago, when he volunteered to hide for Tuesday training exercises.
"I like to spend a lot of time alone in the woods, and I wanted to give something back. So, after about eight months, I found a puppy, Minnie."
Minnie keeps her weight at about 100 pounds on a diet of dog food and table scraps. Her favorite treat is ice cream. But if Kirk should be eating something out in the woods, she always begs a bite.
Minnie's age began to catch up with her about two years ago when she showed signs of hip dysplasia. Nevertheless, in 2000 she participated in two searches: For the teen-age boy who fell off a water ski, and for a woman missing downtown. But Minnie is gradually being phased out of active duty by Ki, who trains three or four times a week.
Once or twice a year, Minnie demonstrates her skills to elementary school students.
"It's like a riot," Radach said. "They're squealing and hiding, and she's finding them. Then they play tug-of-war with her, and she gets to drag them all over the place with her rope."
Now and then Minnie travels to other places in Alaska, and even to the Lower 48 sometimes on business, and sometimes for pleasure.
She wears her identification bib and rides in the cabin.
"People stare at her," Radach said. "Once we went to an international rescue dog conference in Boulder, Colo. She sneaked under a man's seat in Seattle. She was very quiet, and didn't come out until we landed at Boulder. He jumped because he didn't know she was there."
"The stewardess said she behaved better than most kids," Radach added.
Ann Chandonnet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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