“To a dog, the helicopter is a giant dog-eating machine that they would rather run from instead of stand up against,” said Juanita Smith, explaining why eight Search and Rescue canines went through desensitization training last month. The group of dogs and handlers practiced hopping on and off a helicopter, with its rotors and downwash blasting away, to acquaint the new teams with the county’s Air Support Unit, used for rescues in difficult terrain.
The all-volunteer Search and Rescue (SAR) teams respond to calls as frequently as twice a week, ranging from car-over-the-side accidents to lost or missing hikers, bikers, children and hunters. The SAR dogs are trained in search operations as well as in locating cadavers, and helicopters are often the fastest transport to inaccessible parts of the county.
The dogs are not forced onto the helicopters during training, emphasized Kelly Hoover, Sheriff’s Office spokesperson. Dog handler Juanita Smith added that some dogs find jumping aboard the whirlybirds no problem, while other take a few sessions before they are comfortable. Once the doors are shut, she said, the California Rescue Dog Association–certified dogs calm down significantly, and the eight flew for about five minutes during the February training session. Generally, about 99 percent of dogs get accustomed to the noise of the helicopters and become valued members of the 34-man Search and Rescue team.