October is Adopt-a-Shelter-Dog Month, and for the past several years Caliente has devoted a cover story to rescue animals. This year we're featuring stories of rescue animals who have helped rescue someone else. For some, it's by bringing love into a home or hospital. For others, it's literally trying to save lives.
It's a cool, sunny day on Mount Lemmon and Karen Paquette is getting ready to hit the trail with Matilda, her 8-year-old Queensland heeler mix.
Just before they set off Paquette fastens a small reflective vest onto the intense little dog's back and snaps a bell onto her collar.
Far from a casual jaunt up the popular Box Camp trail, this is a training exercise that will test Matilda's ability to sniff out evidence and eventually locate a lost hiker who has wandered off the path. The bell will help Paquette track her dog's movements as the heeler searches for scent.
Matilda is both a rescuer and a rescue.
Adopted as a puppy from the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, Matilda is a veteran with Southwest Rescue Dogs, Inc., an all-volunteer, nonprofit K-9 search and rescue organization.
The dogs' vests bear the emblem of the Pima County Sheriff's Department, but the group also assists other local and federal law enforcement agencies in finding people believed lost, injured or deceased, and evidence.
Volunteers train their own dogs with guidance from others on the team.
Three of the four dogs at that Mount Lemmon training came to their families from shelters or otherwise needed a new home. The volunteers range in age from early 20s to nearly 70, and occupations include an aircraft engineer, teacher and executive chef.
"We're kind of an extended family," said Vi Brown, the group's training coordinator.
The members share a devotion to their dogs and to the mission of helping others - often by bringing closure. "If we can do some good it's worth every step," said Paquette's husband, Mark.
The training emphasizes positive reinforcement. "The dogs always win," he explained.
The Paquettes joined Southwest Rescue in 2004 as a way to channel Matilda's take-charge personality, keen instincts and strong drive.
"I had to get her a job. Literally, she was driving us crazy," Karen Paquette, a special education teacher, recalled with a laugh. "We would tiptoe around and whisper so we wouldn't wake the dog."
The traits that make exceptional working dogs can all too often lead to them ending up in shelters when owners fail to channel that energy.
Craig Dibbern adopted Layla, a young heeler mix, from New Hope Cattle Dogs Rescue and Rehoming in Phoenix.
"They tug at my heart - what they have been through. They've been lost, abandoned or given away," he said. He joined the rescue group, he said, because "I wanted her to have a job. As a cattle dog, she needs to be stimulated constantly."
The Paquettes looked into agility, obedience and other activities, but found search and rescue the best fit for Matilda.
Matilda and Brown's dog, Snoopy, have earned national certification, and have logged more than 70 missions.
"It's intense," said Paquette, referring to the ongoing training demanded of both humans and dogs.
Only about one out of every four dogs that tries out with Southwest Rescue has what it takes to be a search dog. About 40 dogs have taken part since the group started in 1993.
Several humans volunteer without dogs.
Sgt. George Economidis, who supervises the Pima County Sheriff's Department search-and-rescue unit, said Southwest Rescue's "dedication is above measure. These folks will drop whatever they're doing - on a holiday or in the middle of the night - to go out and help somebody."
Calls range from searching for missing Alzheimer's patients, helping to recover drowning victims to trying to find evidence.
"The dogs absolutely know the odors and they'll go out and find what you want them to find," Economidis said.
Pam Johnson joined the group in 2004 after reading about it in a newspaper. She became a mission ready dog handler with Kelly, her black Labrador Retriever mix, who is trained in air scent and evidence, but is now close to retiring.
Johnson started making frequent trips to the Humane Society to find a dog she thought would take to the work and eventually spotted San-dee, a pitbull/heeler mix. "The third time I went back she was still sitting there and I knew it was meant to be."
Members of Southwest Rescue Dogs go through extensive training that includes radio communications, medical, crime scene preservation, biohazard handling, map, compass, GPS, helicopter procedures, knots, and a basic understanding of technical skills. They must earn certification in outdoor emergency care through the National Ski Patrol and CPR.
Dogs must be between 6 months and 5 years old to start training.
• Learn more about the group: www.sarci.org/SRDI.htm