MacGyver (Stein), 2013 – 2022

Remembering the Santa Barbara County Search & Rescue K9

Credit: Zack Warburg

“He is my other eyes that can see above the clouds; my other ears that hear above the winds. He is the part of me that can reach out into the sea. He has told me a thousand times over that I am his reason for being; by the way he rests against my leg; by the way he thumps his tail at my smallest smile; by the way he shows his hurt when I leave without taking him. (I think it makes him sick with worry when he is not along to care for me.) When I am wrong, he is delighted to forgive. When I am angry, he clowns to make me smile. When I am happy, he is joy unbounded. When I am a fool, he ignores it. When I succeed, he brags. Without him, I am only another (wo)man. With him, I am all-powerful. He is loyalty itself. He has taught me the meaning of devotion. With him, I know a secret comfort and a private peace. He has brought me understanding where before I was ignorant. His head on my knee can heal my human hurts. His presence by my side is my protection against my fears of dark and unknown things. He has promised to wait for me… whenever… wherever – in case I need him. And I expect I will – as I always have. He is just my dog.” ―Gene Hill

Credit: Courtesy

My wife and I first saw MacGyver and his littermates when they were four weeks old in August of 2013 at an Australian Shepherd breeder in Shingle Springs near Auburn, CA. I was impressed with the mother and with all of the pups’ calm dispositions. Four weeks later, we picked up this furball puppy to drive back home to Santa Barbara. We soon stopped for lunch and while sitting outside eating, we watched our new puppy. He was sitting close by in his crate in the back of our vehicle, and he unexpectedly started to howl. Right there, I knew this dog was special and was hopeful that he was going to be an exceptional search and rescue (SAR) K9. 

Why name this puppy “MacGyver”? His coloring is a Red-Tri, and I had high hopes that he would solve many puzzles in his future. I started training immediately after bringing him home, and MacGyver learned his commands and the game of search quickly with enthusiasm. He was a joy, became potty-trained quickly, never dug, had an over-the-top play and prey drive, and soon became an important member of our pack. He also seemed to enjoy hanging out with me at the SAR station. MacGyver taught everyone how to play tug with him and soon was my perfect boy.  

After almost three years of training, with a few camping road trips mixed in, signing off on various skills, and passing preliminary tests, MacGyver became mission-ready in air scent and human remains detection. One of the skill signoffs is to load onto a helicopter with the blades rotating. Most K9s are reluctant, but MacGyver was always eager and would practically drag me to load and fly. He was always all-in and eager to participate. Being “mission-ready,” we started searching when needed in our county and throughout the state. It was exciting and a joy to watch MacGyver’s intensity when working. It was humbling when he would look at me for direction. 

Credit: Courtesy

At first light on January 9, 2018, MacGyver and I responded to Montecito to assist after the mudflow disaster that occurred at 3 a.m. Our first assignment was to search an area east of Olive Mill Road where an infant was earlier found alive in a pile of debris behind a home. A bedroom portion of that home was severed from the original portion of the home and came to rest across the street where a mother and her two sons where rescued. The water level was knee-high on me, and MacGyver’s searching ability was limited. From there, we were assigned to search the Randall Road area for the remainder of the day. All the affected areas of Montecito were devastated. The Randall Road area was no different. Most of the homes were gone or with just the skeleton remaining. MacGyver worked hard under these difficult conditions, attempting to find the still missing residents.  

On day two, we returned to the area we first searched the day before with two other Santa Barbara County SAR K9 teams. Most of the water had receded, and now the area was mostly muddy, still difficult, but the search conditions were somewhat better. Our assignment was to clear the backyards of the homes on the streets parallel to Olive Mill Road. After clearing our section of homes, MacGyver and I went back to the area that we limitedly searched the day before. That day, there was an L.A. Fire Task Force unit searching the remainder of the homes. I noticed that there was a huge debris pile in Montecito Creek that was dammed up at a resident bridge. I asked the fire captain if anyone had searched the debris pile. He said no and then inquired about MacGyver’s ability. I answered by saying “Hey, man, his name is MacGyver,” and then proceeded to search the pile. 

MacGyver was unbelievable searching the pile and gave me his human remains alert toward the up-stream portion of the pile. I called another SBC SAR K9 team over and asked them to search the pile.  Their dog alerted at the same location. We informed the fire captain of a possible find and flagged the alert location. The next day, a deceased 25-year-old female was unearthed. I was very proud of my boy.  After two weeks, all but two of the missing residents were located by searchers, one by MacGyver and one by a CARDA K9. 

Credit: Courtesy

MacGyver and I continued to search regularly for the next two years, following up on any clue. On occasion, other SBC SAR members and K9 teams would also join us in hope of finding the two remaining missing youths. On one occasion, our K9 teams searched the beach from Montecito to Rincon Point. Another time, we searched for five days in the Montecito Creek about 100 yards below the catch basin while Public Works slowly excavated the creek to bedrock. MacGyver and I continued to search, but as time passed on, we searched less frequently. The SBC SAR K9s were honored as Grand Marshals at the 2018 State Street Christmas Parade. We were all proud of our search K9 partners.

Over the years, MacGyver and I visited numerous schools and public groups. MacGyver was always the go-to team K9 because he was so gentle, forgiving, and safe around young people.

Away from SAR, MacGyver was also very active. We hiked and walked together regularly and backpacked together, often sharing a single-person tent. Great fun! Over the years, annually, MacGyver would join me when I cross-country skied. He loved frolicking and playing in the snow. MacGyver, my wife, and I often did long and shorter camper trips. In 2018, we drove to the Arctic Ocean via the Canadian Northern Territories. While there, the three of us put our paws in the Arctic Ocean. We all did some beautiful hikes while exploring. 

This last August, we started a three-month camper road trip to eastern Canada, including Quebec, Labrador, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. We were having a wonderful time until after two months, MacGyver started showing signs that something was wrong with him. After a veterinary visit in Maine, we realized that MacGyver was seriously ill. 

We decided to drive home as soon as possible to have MacGyver’s condition diagnosed more thoroughly. We got back to Santa Barbara on September 30 and went directly to Advance Veterinary Specialists. Unfortunately, MacGyver was diagnosed with lymphoma, and the prognosis was not good. The plan was to attempt to get MacGyver in remission by having regular doses of chemotherapy. It was explained that MacGyver would feel practically normal once in remission, but remission would probably only last for about nine months after starting treatment. 

After having weekly visits, MacGyver was reported to be in remission in mid-November. Except for losing a few whiskers, you would never know he was ill by looking at him. At the beginning of this last May, MacGyver started to come out of remission. MacGyver’s oncologist tried what is called emergency chemo in an attempt to get MacGyver back into remission, but it was unsuccessful. From the time of MacGyver’s lymphoma diagnosis, our goal was to do our best for MacGyver to have a good day each day. We concentrated on one day at a time. During these days, MacGyver also made our days good days by enthusiastically being MacGyver. 

Credit: Courtesy

All in all, we had many good days, had fun, went on hikes, got in one more camping trip, and enjoyed each other, but June 14 came too soon. MacGyver quickly developed respiratory destress because of his lymph nodes becoming enlarged, and we decided it was time to let him travel the Rainbow Bridge to join our first SAR K9, Kody, and those other special creatures who traveled before him. I must say that we are grateful for everyone at Advance Veterinary Specialists for being professional, compassionate, kind, and helpful during this whole process.

MacGyver made a difference in my life, my family’s life, and others. He was my partner, our hero, our handsome boy, and we will forever miss him. This last week has been very difficult not having MacGyver by our side, but we are so grateful that he was a very important part of our lives for nearly nine years.  MacGyver was truly a gift from God.

I am reminded of something Dr. Seuss wrote many years ago: “Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.”

As we all know, wolves evolved alongside man and, after observing man from afar, understood we could actually coexist long before man did. Wolves and then dogs blessed us by choosing to live with us. We have been blessed by MacGyver for choosing us.

With a heavy heart, now it is time to say, “MacGyver, Free Dog.”

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