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Dog search team receives certification

Chris Patterson

Stacy Watts and Fancy

Kurt Hornicek with Sierra

(4/5) If your child wanders away from a picnic into the woods, the Thurmont Community Ambulance Company wants you to call them for help.

If you do, they will deploy their newly certified Thurmont Canine Search and Rescue Team to conduct the search.

The team is one of a handful of canine teams nationwide that is affiliated with a fire and rescue company, according to team leader Kurt Hornicek.

Hornicek said it has taken all of those five years to obtain certification, but now the wait is over. Up till now, the team has participated in anywhere from six to a dozen searches a year. With certification, they expect to be doing many more.
“If you love the outdoors and working with dogs, it’s great,” Hornicek said of his job. “I’ve been doing this 15 years and it’s great to get out there and be part of a team.”

Thurmont’s rescue team currently has eight human members and three dogs with a couple more in training. The human members of the team are all trained and certified EMTs.

To conduct a search, teams conduct grid searches using the air-scent tracking method. What that means, Hornicek explains, is that rather than hunting for an individual person, each team hunts for any human smells at all.

Because the dogs hunt by smelling the air rather than smelling the ground, the dogs can also track across water as long as the person is above the water.

Hornicek’s two-person team includes a partner called a “walk-along,” and one wilderness-air-scent tracking dog.

Travis Pittman is Hornicek’s team member and walk-along. “I am the person responsible for navigation, marking off the grid and making sure the handler and dog are staying on the course and covering the required area,” Pittman said.

Hornicek, as the dog handler, is responsible for directing the dog in the search, but he is trained in all the duties of the walk-along.

Hornicek and Pittman’s best tracker is Sierra, a seven-year-old German Shepherd. A noisy one-year-old black Labrador Retriever named Bentley is currently in training for the day when Sierra retires, Hornicek said.

When the dog locates a person during the tracking, she returns to the handler to alert him. She then re-locates the person, taking the handler and walk-along with her.

To be on a tracking team, each member is certified, which includes two field tests. The daytime testing or “problem” requires the team to search and locate a person covering 160 acres within six hours. The night test requires them to cover 40 acres in two hours.

It’s working as a team with the dogs that is one of the most-appealing things about the work. But there is more to it, the men say.

“Nothing is the same twice. I think that is one of the things that draws people to this,” Pittman said.

More search and rescue volunteers are needed to participate. Anyone interested in learning more about how to work with the rescue team can contact the Thurmont Community Ambulance Company.

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