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Working like a dog: North Chilton Fire trains retrievers

By Scott Mims

Sometimes there is a thin line between work and play. The two certified search and rescue dogs with North Chilton Fire Department, Bella and Ramsey, have the time of their lives while training. But that training could help save someone’s life.

Bella and Ramsey are Labrador retrievers, which means they are very active dogs. In a search and rescue mission, their natural drive to hunt — as well as their keen sense of smell — can make them invaluable tools.

“They think they’re playing, and they have high play drives,” said Jason Snipes, paramedic and dog handler with NCFD.

Snipes owns Bella, and fellow paramedic Bryan Avery owns Ramsey. The dogs are sister and brother, and are about 4 1/2 years old. NCFD obtained the animals from a family that couldn’t afford to keep the dogs.

There have been numerous cases of missing persons in the North Chilton County area in recent years. Snipes knew the closest rescue dogs would have to come from Bibb County, so he thought it would be a good idea to have Bella and Ramsey certified through NOCSAR (National Organization Certifying Search and Rescue).

“We’ve taken our own time and money to do this and get these dogs ready,” Snipes said.

Recently, NOCSAR evaluators came to Minooka Park for the dogs’ official certification tests. The dogs had to find two people located within a 5-acre area of the park within a maximum of 30 minutes.

The dogs passed with flying colors, locating both “victims” within 8 minutes and just under 12 minutes, respectively.

“When they find them, they have to bark, which is their alert, letting us know that they’ve found them,” Snipes explained.

Once a victim is located, the dog’s trainer rewards him or her with a toy. Often during training, a toy is placed at the feet of the “victim.”

“That’s all they’re looking for is that toy,” Snipes said.

Snipes and Avery also participated in a weeklong seminar conducted by NOCSAR in Perry, Fla. Both dogs also continue to train regularly at Minooka, which Snipes says is vital to their performance in a real search and rescue mission.

In fact, they have already been deployed once to assist West Chilton Fire and Rescue to find a missing 2-year-old. Fortunately, the child was located quickly before the dogs had a chance to work.

But there will be plenty more opportunities for Bella and Ramsey to use their training for good. North Chilton K-9 Search and Rescue has partnered with Southeast Shelby Search and Recovery, which means they will have access to search and rescue dogs, cadaver dogs and tracking dogs.

They also plan to train the Labradors to locate victims covered by debris.

“We’re not only going to be dispatched in Chilton County. We can go all over the state and assist with missing person cases and natural disasters,” Snipes said.