Ondřej Vank, dog handler of the Ore Mountains Rescue Service: The dog wants to search, he has it in his instincts

They help with searches in avalanches, debris and large wooded areas in inaccessible terrain. They save valuable minutes that can make the difference in whether an injured person survives. One canine rescuer makes up for up to 20 people, especially at night. A dog can find a person in an avalanche in a few minutes, while rescuers without the help of dog handlers could take up to hours. We will talk about what a handler and his dog need to know, how searching in the field works and about the Czech Republic as a European leader in search cynology in a multi-part series about dog rescuers with Ondřej Vanko, a handler of the Ore Mountains Rescue Service.

Ondřej, you have been with the Mountain Service for over ten years. You’ve had your partner Šuplík by your side for two years. Is he your first rescue dog?
When I was a kid, we had dogs at home. But then I moved to Pilsen and then to Prague for work, there was no room for having a dog. When I started working for the Mountain Service, it had never occurred that I would be a dog handler one day. I got Šuplík as a partner, not a working dog. Back then, me and my wife Klára were expecting our daughter Adélka. To me, it seemed like the perfect timing to get a dog for the growing family. I had no ambitions, though, as I told myself that we would try searching and see what happens.

And it was a good decision. A year and a half later, Šuplík became the first dog rescuer in the Ore Mountains. When did the idea of having an avalanche dog first occur to you?
It was actually a complete coincidence, and it had happened before I even brought Šuplík home as just a little furball. At that time, I was attending a winter training session where dog handlers were training for avalanches. I volunteered to dig a hole where the training assistant would hide. Being a dog handler is actually all about shovelling, as I found out later (editor’s note: he laughs). That day I saw for the first time how it all works. What a miracle it was when the dog, within minutes and with incredible certainty and accuracy, found and marked the spot where the training assistant was thoroughly buried. I was also impressed by the fact that the training is a form of play, that it is not just a drill. That’s when I decided to give it a shot. And the dog I was watching with great admiration was Šuplík’s mother Lucky.

Šuplík (1).jpg
The dog Šuplík of the handler Ondřej Vanko became the first certified dog in the Ore Mountains. 

Lucky and Šuplík are short-haired service Border Collies, but when you say avalanche dog, the image of a Bernardine with a barrel on its neck comes to mind...
I’d say it’s a very generational thing. In the past, you’d see mainly shepherd breeds as service dogs. Nowadays we also have Border Collies or various crossbreeds in our canine brigade. The German Shepherd is a hardworking dog, but you have to task him constantly. I like sports and travel, which is easier with a Border Collie than with a German Shepherd. What’s more, like the Malinois, Border Collies are “cannonball” types of dogs, in the good sense. They have a lot of motivation when searching that lasts a long time.

Šuplík 2.jpg

Is it difficult to train a dog to search, whether in avalanches or in the field?
The dog wants to search, he has it in his instincts. We just need to teach him to mark. In the beginning, I practiced with Šuplík up to six hours a day for about one year. The handler needs to observe the dog’s behaviour when not on a leash, with other dogs and among people. And pick up any flaws and adjust the training accordingly. Each dog is a little different, the handler needs to connect with the dog, so each training is individual. Some dogs do not like too close contact with strangers, others are a little too friendly. The handler needs to know his dog very well to know how the dog will work during a rescue operation.

When does the training start? And how long does it take on average?
The search training begins with the dog at about one year of age. Before that, you can teach the dog basic obedience that every rescue dog must master. It’s important to say that we use only positive motivation and play for all training. However, the training takes place the whole time the dog is in service, i.e. before he retires.

Ondřej, thank you for today’s interview and the opportunity to take a peek into the life of a handler and his dog. I’ll be looking forward to another chat next month!

 

Watch a video from the avalanche assistance course.

 

Photo credit: Fire Rescue Service of the Czech Republic

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