By Jenny Neyman
Of all the things Dale Lawyer has been training his 2-year-old German shepherd, Ares, to do — scent tracking, avalanche rescue, obedience, interacting with kids and community members — he didn’t figure begging for funding would be on the agenda.
Not that Ares wouldn’t be good at it. With his big, brown eyes; stiff-yet-fuzzy, triangle-pointed ears; floppy tongue; shiny, black-and-chestnut coat; and good-natured disposition, he’d probably rake in some serious cash with an offering cup around his neck. But Ares is much more than a cute mug good at shaking paws and giving high fives. He’s a search and rescue dog trained to save lives, equivalent to the efforts of 20 or 30 human searchers.
Yet in order to be able to use his innate skills, honed through hundreds of hours of training, to find people lost in the woods, buried in avalanches or swept away in the water, he needs funding. Ares is an extraordinary dog and that comes with extra costs — specialty food, supplements, equipment and veterinary care, and the cost of adding and maintaining certifications to be able to perform search and rescue tasks in accordance with legal and liability dictates. After Central Emergency Services dropped Ares from its budget this fiscal year, and Lawyer’s campaign to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly failed to get the dog’s budget reinstated, those costs fall squarely on Lawyer and whatever community and local business support he can find.
“I’d hate to just let him go,” Lawyer said. “The second you let him go I know there’s going to be some lost little kid and I’d feel horrible. And it’s not just me. So many people volunteered and put effort into him, all the people who donated a lot of hours to do his training.”
Last year, Ares was an asset of Central Emergency Services, where Lawyer works as a paramedic/engineer. Lawyer and his wife purchased Ares as a puppy from a breeder in Anchorage for about $1,500. The plan was to start training him, evaluate his abilities as a search and rescue dog, then approach CES administration and the Central Emergency Service Area Board of Directors to see about taking on the dog as a departmental resource.
The board and administration agreed, setting a $10,000 budget for Ares’ first year, with $2,000 to $3,000 for equipment and the rest to pay for training. He’s been certified to do 24- to 36-hour searches and started working toward avalanche rescue certification, with Lawyer also planning to certify Ares in water cadaver searches.
Along with being available to assist in search and rescue operations anywhere in the borough at a moment’s notice, Ares helped Lawyer with a Lost in the Woods program, teaching kids how to stay warm, use signals, where not to hide, where to go to be found and how not to be afraid if lost in the wilderness.
The dog was a hit in the schools and any community events with which he helped, Lawyer said, and various businesses and community organizations contributed to get Ares and Lawyer necessary equipment, like a floatation vest, winter gear and an avalanche beacon.
But this funding cycle, Ares was cut from the CES budget. The high-end estimate of his cost was estimated at $30,000, which was too high to justify for one resource, said CES Chief Chris Mokracek at the time. Part of the problem was the realization that CES would have to pay Lawyer overtime for his work with Ares, due to Fair Labor Standards Act stipulations.
Lawyer countered that the $30,000 budget was inflated and the dog’s annual cost could be whittled down to as little as a few thousand dollars with the help of community and business partnerships. He and a parade of Ares supporters pleaded their case at several borough assembly meetings this spring, but no action was taken to reinstate the dog’s budget. It was a “huge disappointment,” Lawyer said, particularly because of all the time and money that had already gone into Ares’ training and equipment — including taxpayer dollars and community donations.
“The borough wouldn’t even see if we could partner with businesses in this area. They didn’t even make an effort,” Lawyer said. “That’s why I’m really disappointed. These people really wanted the program to go and they already paid for it. Everyone in the CES service area, through their taxes, have paid for this service. Then (CES and the borough) basically said, ‘We’re just done with it.’ After they already paid over $20,000 from the borough and what citizens put in.”
Lawyer was left with a choice. He could still offer his and Ares’ search and rescue services as an independent contractor to Alaska State Troopers, and even resurrect the Lost in the Woods program on his own. But he’d be responsible for the costs of Ares’ training, certifications and maintenance, even more so than he already was.
Or, he could retire Ares and just let him be a regular family pet.
Lawyer and his wife talked about it and decided they couldn’t let Ares go to waste.
“Working dogs, they need a job to do. They can’t just sit there, they have to have something to do,” Lawyer said. “And he’s a really talented dog. I’m really surprised at how far he’s come along,”
Ares is only 2 and already has his search and rescue certification, and in another year could finish his avalanche search and rescue certification and water cadaver search certification. Most dogs don’t even start training until they’re 2, Lawyer said, so Ares has the potential for a long, 10- or 11-year career ahead of him.
It’s a service that Lawyer sees as vital in this area. Troopers have a few dogs trained for short-term tracking, drug and evidence search and suspect apprehension, but they aren’t trained for long-term search and rescue tracking, like Ares is.
“One of these days, a kid or an Alzheimer’s patient or a diabetic is going to wander off and we’re not going to be able to find the person, and we’ll need another resource,” Lawyer said. “My wife and I sat down and thought, ‘What’s changed in the community since we wanted to do this?’ Nothing. There’s a huge need here, as this summer has shown.”
This summer has been a bad one for drownings on the Kenai Peninsula, including Soldotna resident Rob Smithwick falling into the Kenai River on July 21. Had Ares received his water search certification as Lawyer had planned for him to, he could have been able to help immediately, instead of searchers waiting for dogs to come down from Anchorage.
“This is Alaska. Any search and rescue is an emergency in Alaska. I don’t care if you’re only gone for an hour,” Lawyer said.
Lawyer still works for CES, but now all Ares’ training, certification classes and community involvements have to happen off-duty. That’s been challenging, since Lawyer was used to having Ares with him at work and being able to train him during down time, with help from co-workers who could act as victims or help set trails on which Ares could practice. Lawyer still spends about eight to 10 hours a week training Ares, but that’s about half what he used to spend. Now, Ares has to sit at home and wait for Lawyer to get back from work.
“Hanging out has really been hard on him because he was with me every day, that’s what he knew all his life. But it is what it is. We’re going to roll with it and do the best we can. We’ll figure it out,” he said.
Lawyer hopes to be able to offer three or four Lost in the Woods classes during the school year, and to get involved with Ares in community programs like Kids Don’t Float, to promote water safety and the importance of wearing floatation devices — parents as well as children.
In the future, Lawyer hopes that a different administration will be more amenable to reinstating Ares as a member of CES. In the meantime, Lawyer is looking for community support and donations to help support Ares’ continued operation. Much of Ares’ equipment has already been donated, but there are ongoing costs, such as his training and certification classes, food, supplies and veterinary care, transportation, and supplies for Lost in the Woods kits for kids.
Twin Cities Veterinary Clinic has offered to support Ares, and Cad-Re Feed in Soldotna has also recently become a sponsor. Dianna Taplin, owner of Cad-Re, said she did so after talking with Lawyer when he came in to buy supplies for Ares. She just decided on her own to offer her support, much to Lawyers’ appreciation and surprise.
“We felt like it’s a good service for the community and we want to support him and try and keep him going, because we’re isolated. We need help down here at times,” Taplin said. “If the community has to do it, meaning me, then fine. It seemed like a worthy, worthwhile thing to do and a good thing to support. If my son’s lost on a snowmachine up on the mountain, I’m going to want someone to go save him.”