By Jenny Neyman
As a working dog trained in search and rescue, Ares the German shepherd is the equivalent of 20 to 30 human searchers. After scenting on an item from a missing person, it takes as little as some disturbed vegetation or a faint puff of wind carrying an odor and Ares can find that person, miles away, on the other side of a lake, even if the trail is a day or more cold. Owned by Dale Lawyer, a paramedic/engineer with Central Emergency Services, Ares was a resource for the entire peninsula, able to aid in search-and-rescue operations at a moment’s notice.
But as of last week, due to a decision made in union negotiations, Ares is cut from CES’ budget, leaving Lawyer to search for answers and a way to get Ares back to work.
“If there’s a 5-year-old child that’s lost right now, we can’t go,’” Lawyer said Thursday. “It’s just really sad for something that service area members paid for. Your tax dollars paid to get this dog in service, yet you have to go to some mom and say, ‘Yeah, you paid for all this, but we’re not going to use it.’ That’s just not acceptable.”
Lawyer got Ares as a puppy from a breeder in Anchorage a little under two years ago. Lawyer purchased Ares himself, for about $1,500, and began training and evaluating him to see if the pup would be viable as a search-and-rescue dog — the only on the peninsula. When it was clear Ares was up to the task, Lawyer approached CES Fire Chief Chris Mokracek and the board of directors for Central Emergency Services and pitched the idea of bringing Ares on as a CES resource.
“Usually, they purchase the dog and cover the training. I wanted this to go so bad my family purchased the dog. We really wanted to get this going,” Lawyer said. “This is something I’ve seen that we’ve needed. I’ve been with Central Emergency Services for quite awhile now, and we’ve had a number of fatalities where a dog could have been brought in and I know the consequences would have been a lot different.”
Lawyer said the department and board were behind the program when he presented it last winter. The board set a $10,000 budget for the year, with $2,000 to $3,000 to pay for equipment and the rest to send Lawyer and Ares to training Outside to get the dog certified to do up to 24- to 36-hour trailing searches. Lawyer pitches in to cover costs for the dog, which lives with his family, and a community fundraiser raised about $3,000 to purchase equipment for him.
“Our board was mandating we do more for search and rescue and we hadn’t been doing it last year, as much as they had wanted to see. The board was 100 percent behind him, and the borough and everybody signed off on his budget last year without a problem,” Lawyer said. “For him to have a $10,000 budget, the board didn’t even blink an eye last year. He’s such a minute amount of our budget.”
Ares came to work at CES and also aids Lawyer in community outreach and a Lost in the Woods kids education program. Kids are taught how to stay warm, use signals, where not to hide, where to go to be found and how not to be afraid. Ares has been a hit with schools, kids, teachers and parents, Lawyer said.
“For the past year we’ve been constantly going to schools promoting the education program, trying to help kids, and the kids love him,” Lawyer said. “It’s going to be crushing for the kids because we’re scheduled up through summer school, and now we can’t go.”
Lawyer said he’s planning on spending another 10 years or so with CES, and wants to have Ares with him the whole time, which is the average span of a working dog’s career. Lawyer wants to get him certified in water and land cadaver searches and avalanche searches, as well.
“It’s not a moneymaker for me. He is a cost. It’s just the way it is, dogs cost. It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme for me. He has to be on special dog food — he has allergies, like most shepherds do. It’s costly to have him,” Lawyer said.
The money already spent on Ares is part of what irks him about his dog being cut, Lawyer said.
“And now they’re going to drop it all, and it’s just not acceptable to have this happen. It’s like you buy a diamond, you get it and then you send it back to the factory. You already paid for it but, ‘Here, you can just have it back.’ It’s just crazy,” Lawyer said.
“If all we did is search and rescue, and we didn’t do public programs and all that other stuff, I could see people having more of a problem with that amount of money. But with all he does, we’re constantly out doing public programs and doing the Lost in the Woods program for people. It’s invaluable,” he said.
Lawyer said he doesn’t know of anyone who has been unhappy with Ares or his performance. They haven’t failed any tests or received any poor performance reviews. The response to Ares has been glowing, Lawyer said.
“It’s not like we’ve been screwing up and not doing our job this year. I can’t find anybody who’s not happy with us, with what he’s doing,” he said.
And yet, Lawyer returned from a vacation last week and was told, “out of the blue,” that Ares had been cut, Lawyer said.
CES Chief Chris Mokracek said the decision came about as part of the budget process. Though Lawyer was given a memo saying the Line of Accounting for Ares had been terminated, more accurately the dog is suspended for now, pending review by the legal department, Mokracek said. The reason was partially financial and partially a legal liability issue, and had nothing to do with Lawyer’s or Ares’ performance, he said.
“The dog is awesome. Dale has done an excellent job with it. We just have to prioritize services. We can’t have every idea that comes down the line,” Mokracek said. Continue reading