A few summers ago, Mark Polakoff and his dog Bear joined in a search for a couple of Billings teens who went hiking in the Beartooth Mountains outside of Red Lodge.
Polakoff, one of the founders of Absaroka Search Dogs, has been with the group since its inception in 1986. He, along with fellow member Kris Cooper, gave a talk to 20 people Saturday morning at Lovable Pets in Billings.
“A couple of young women had gone out for the day but they were unprepared,” Polakoff said, Bear, a 4-year-old German shepherd, lying next to him on the floor. “They were wearing tennis shoes and shorts and they were above 10,000 feet.”
A thunderstorm came through and the temperature dropped. Searchers found the teens the next day, cold but no worse for wear.
Polakoff and the others walked them back to the trailhead where “the reunion with their waiting family was really gratifying,” he said.
Not every search has a happy ending, Polakoff said. More often he and Kooper and Chris Dover, of Bozeman, the third active member of the group, are asked to help to recover a body.
“One of the things we recognize, if we know we’re looking for somebody that’s not alive, we’re not doing it for that person,” he said. “We’re bringing some relief to the family.”
Polakoff, who lives in Red Lodge, is a nurse in the emergency department at Billings Clinic. Cooper lives in Clark, Wyoming, and works in road maintenance for Park County, Wyoming.
Polakoff considers his search work with Bear on equal footing with his work as a nurse.
“My hobbies are skiing, backpacking, fishing — things like that — but my careers are nursing and search and rescue dogs,” he said.
Cooper, who brought along Brady, his 7-year-old red heeler mix, clearly has an easy rapport with the dog. But he told the group that energetic search-and-rescue dogs don’t necessarily make the best pets.
“You’ve always got to be finding something to do with them,” he said. “If you’re not, they’re finding something to do and it’s usually not something you want them to be doing.”
The key, Cooper said, is to keep the dogs focused, active and healthy through a combination of diet and exercise, because the dogs and their handlers have to be ready to put in 12-hour days. Members of the group try to get together at least once a month for training, but the training continues just about every day at home to keep the dogs sharp and focused and keep them fit.
Polakoff and Cooper also attend seminars around the country. And they and the dogs go through a certification process every two years.
One discipline the dogs learn early is to not to chase wildlife. If they’re not taught to ignore rabbits or deer or other wildlife while on assignment, it could distract them from what they’re actually searching for.
“We get deployed in Yellowstone National Park quite a bit and they really frown on our dogs trying to herd buffalo,” Cooper said, laughing. “So we really have to work on that since the search dogs are often off leash. They know what they’ve got to do.”
All of the work the members of Absaroka Search Dogs do is volunteer, Polakoff said. Occasionally a county might supply the handlers a tank of gas, a meal or lodging at a bed and breakfast.
“Most of the expenses, we either bear ourselves or we conduct fundraisers to cover those expenses,” he said.
The handlers might be called out in the middle of the night. They cover South Central Montana up to the Hi Line, east to the Montana-Dakota border and in many part of Wyoming, other than the Cody and Jackson areas.
“We put anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 miles a year on our vehicles,” Polakoff said.
A typical assignment might run anywhere from two to 12 hours in a day. The number of call outs range from three in one year to 20 the next.
The group is always looking for new members, he said, but the rigorous training for the handler and the ongoing training for their dog dissuade many beginners from continuing with the work.
For team members, a good outcome makes it all worthwhile. Cooper talked about a time on the Hi-Line when he and his dog helped search for a little girl who had been abducted and left for dead in an abandoned vehicle.
“She was curled up in a blanket in a stripped-out pickup truck,” he said. “It was early spring and a lot of snow on the ground. We were lucky we found her still alive.”