Oscar is only 8 months old, but he is already well on his way to becoming a hero.
Oscar is a golden retriever that belongs to retired Lexington firefighter (1994-2017) Bradley Gavin. After Gavin’s Newfoundland/black lab mix passed away, it didn't take him long to find another companion.
“I didn't last two and a half weeks; I knew I needed four legs,” he said. Gavin picked up Oscar in December when the puppy was only 2 months old, and the training began.
Gavin has been a technician with Northstar Search and Rescue for 2 1/2 years. He first heard about the nonprofit organization after he became president of the Lexington Fire charitable gambling organization and attended the state convention.
“I love working with dogs. It is the concept of helping other people in a tangible way and being a part of something that is bigger than myself,” Gavin explained.
Northstar Search and Rescue is an all-volunteer organization that has been in existence for 30 years. The volunteers use their skills and experience to assist law enforcement and other government agencies in finding and recovering lost persons in any environment, whether in urban settings
or the wilderness. Currently, the organization has 15 members from all over the state and about 10 dogs of various breeds including a goldendoodle, golden retriever, border collie, German shepherd, Bavarian mountain hound and various mutts.
“We have really talented people out there that are dedicated to helping saving lives,” Northstar Search and Rescue Chief Diane Stefanick said.
As a technician, Gavin is responsible for going out on searches with a handler and K-9. He is in charge of communication, mapping, carrying extra water and more. When Oscar's training is complete, he will be Gavin's first search and rescue dog, and Gavin will be able to serve as both a handler and a technician.
Right now, Oscar's training consists mainly of obedience, but he also routinely plays hide-and-seek to practice search skills. “They are like kids; the sooner you start reading books to them, the sooner they start reading. It is all a game,” Gavin explained. “His drive is a squeaky ball. For another dog in our group, it is raw bacon. You have to make it as fun as possible for them. It has to be fun and rewarding.”
Gavin said Northstar Search and Rescue is most commonly called upon to help find little kids, people with autism, dementia patients and suicides. The dogs can search both on land and in water, and some dogs are specifically trained in cadaver searches, which means they search for someone who is likely deceased.
As a person who has attempted suicide multiple times, Gavin said, “My dream is always to find somebody before they actually do it. My life is so much better than I ever could have imagined, and I want to do whatever I can to let them know it does get better.”
Although the organization mainly stays in Minnesota and Wisconsin, it has also been called to nearby states including Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota. Stefanick said the group participated in about 30 searches last year and averages between 30 and 50 searches each year.
“We go through some pretty tough conditions ... cold temperatures, swamps, buckthorn, raspberry bushes, rough brush ... the dogs really get sliced up by that stuff,” Gavin explained.
The dogs use various articles such as socks, hats, handkerchiefs, T-shirts, bandanas, shoes, pants etc. to help locate the missing. Gavin said it is very important that whoever gives them an article doesn't transfer their scent to the article. “Use a clean Ziploc baggy and pick it up with the baggy so no hand touches it. You can also wear non-latex gloves,” Gavin explained. Gavin also added it is important for people to report someone missing as soon as they know they are missing, rather than waiting 24 hours. “24 hours is a television thing. If you know somebody is missing, call the police and tell them why you know they are missing.”
Typically it takes around 1 1/2 years to fully train a dog, but every dog and handler are a bit different, Stefanick said. Search and rescue dog teams are trained to nationally recognized standards and certified through organizations such as North American Working Dog Association, United K-9s, National Association for Search and Rescue, and Law Enforcement Training Standards. In addition, technicians are also required to take a class that takes about 30 hours to complete. Northstar Search and Rescue also has minimum requirements for medical training.
Handlers bear the financial burden for training, certifications, gear, equipment and travel expenses. Those who wish to donate to Northstar Search and Rescue can do so through Amazon Smile. Donations can also be made online at https://northstarsar.com/search-rescue or mailed to 1609 Independence Ave. N. Golden Valley, MN 55427.
Editor Shannon Granholm can be reached at 651-407-1227 or email@example.com.