ST. GEORGE —While many Southern Utah residents are relaxing and enjoying grilled hot dogs on Labor Day, real dogs are laboring to meet their needs and keep them safe. Dogs aren’t just man’s best friend, they serve their handlers in ways that go far beyond companionship.
Dogs to the rescue
Labor Day weekend is a busy time as people head to the hills for a few more days of fun while the weather is still nice. For the Iron County Sheriff Search and Rescue K-9 Unit, this means standing by to help those who may get lost or have an accident. Unit Capt. Bert Mitchell is a member of the K-9 team which currently includes five handlers and nine dogs.
“The dogs can cover a lot more ground than a person,” Mitchell said. “They can pick up a scent from quite a distance.”
The K-9 team in Iron County is trained in three disciplines. The air scent discipline involves dogs using an item containing the scent of the missing person. The dog is trained to find that person using this scent and then lead the handler to them. This is similar to the tracking discipline that is used to follow a person in an urban or wilderness situation. The team also trains in human remains detection.
Being a member of the K-9 team in Iron County is no small task for the dogs or their handlers. The job requires covering all 3,300 square miles of terrain in Iron County. The team responds to numerous incidents each year involving a lost or missing person, with the dogs being deployed on the majority of those calls.
The K-9 team tries to recruit dogs that have a good demeanor, high drive and exhibit “play or prey” attributes. Working dogs like German shepherds and retrievers are good candidates. Despite the long hours and hard work, members of the K-9 team in Iron County are volunteers. The dogs are privately owned and undergo extensive training along with their handlers.
Criminals don’t seem to mind working on holidays, which means K-9 dogs are ready to pounce into action at a moment’s notice. The St. George Police Department has three K-9 dogs on the force. K-9 coordinator Sgt. Joe Watson said the dogs are “force multipliers.”
“We’re able to put those dogs in a situation where we’re able to alleviate the danger to one of our officers,” Watson said. The mere presence of a police dog is enough to get some suspects to surrender.
K-9 dogs are selected for duty based on their drive rather than breed. That said, labradors and springer spaniels are great for narcotics detection. Beagles work well in airports because they can get into small spaces. When it comes to apprehending suspects, Belgian Malinois and German shepherds perform well due to their agility and athleticism.
Serving with a K-9 dog is not a 40-hour a week gig. The dogs live with the officers who are required to take care of all their needs both on and off duty. Training a K-9 dog is intensive and endless. St. George Police dogs begin their careers with an eight-week course offered through the Utah Post Curriculum.
Each year, both the officer and their dog undergo testing to get recertified. In between all that, K-9 dogs and their handlers train four hours a week per discipline. For Officer Cody Adams and his dog, Officer Enzo, this means spending eight hours a week just in training. Enzo is a dual purpose dog, serving in both narcotics detection and suspect apprehension.
Like all service dogs, the ones on the K-9 team are not pets. In fact, it is illegal to interfere with a police dog that is working. A good rule of thumb is never pet any dog without the owner’s permission.
‘I got this!’
For people with disabilities, service dogs can literally save their lives. Cathy Powell, Executive Director of Loving Angel Service Dogs, is currently teaching a dog how to sound an alarm every time his handler has a seizure. When this happens, the dog presses a button to alert the other members of the household, then grabs a bottle of water and lies down with the handler until help arrives.
“We use choice based training. It’s all positive reinforcement,” Powell said. “They have found scientifically that when a dog makes a correct choice, there’s a dopamine release in their brains.”
Service dogs also perform countless everyday tasks such as opening doors, turning on lights, picking things up, carrying items and even helping handlers get undressed.
All the service dogs at Loving Angel come from two labradoodle parents: Duffy and Lucy. These dogs have produced 24 puppies as service dogs, including eight they are currently training. This is a two-year process that requires heavy involvement from the handler who is receiving the dog. The work doesn’t stop once a dog is placed. Handlers have a daily “to do” list, which includes feeding, grooming, playing, exercising and on-going training with the dog.
Loving Angel Service Dogs is a nonprofit organization run by 30 volunteers. The dogs are free to qualified members of the military and first responders. Greatly discounted prices are offered to clients with disabilities. They are able to accomplish this through the generosity of private donations.
Re-writing Murphy’s Law
For St. George resident Senecca Corsetti, Murphy’s Law is “anything that I can’t do myself, Murphy can do for me.”
In this case, Murphy is a labradoodle service dog who has lived with Corsetti since 2019. Corsetti trained with Murphy for two years at Loving Angel Service Dogs. As part of the program, Corsetti worked with seven puppies, but she felt an immediate connection to Murphy. Once the bond was made, Murphy ate and slept with one of Corsetti’s T-shirts to associate her sent with positive experiences.
Prior to getting Murphy, Corsetti said she hardly went anywhere alone.
“Now I don’t have this fear,” Corsetti said. “I know that if I get stuck, drop something or come across a set of stairs, Murphy will make sure I get around these obstacles with no pain.”
Murphy has even prompted Corsetti to take up sports. One of their favorite activities is a practice called Rally Obedience.
Bark side of the moon
Southern Utah residents can rest easy this Labor Day knowing working dogs are on the job. Whether it’s a service dog fetching the ketchup or a K-9 dog keeping the streets safe, four-legged friends are eager to please.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.