KILAUEA — On a warm Sunday morning next to a Kilauea dog park, in a vast field of ankle high grass, 10-year-old Australian Shepherd Astro walks unleashed with handler Debra Gochros.
Astro sniffs and wanders through puddles, mud, and red dirt. Hiding in the bushes is George Vaught. Astro makes contact with Vaught and quickly runs to Gochros.
“Show me,” Gochros says to Astro.
Astro leads Gochros to Vaught. The Australian Shepherd is rewarded with her favorite rope toy.
Nearly every Sunday for the past 10 years, the Kauai Search and Rescue K-9 Team rounds up its volunteers and dogs and takes part in rescue training simulations.
“The benefits for the community, if there ever comes a time where you lose somebody, dogs can do a very big range and smell things that people can’t,” said Timothy O’Rourke, a volunteer of six years and teacher at Kilauea school. “All this training, some day, will help someone.”
Azi Turturici, long-time organizer, said there are 12 organizers and six dogs.
Peter Kahapea, a volunteer with the program since day one, said it takes about two years from a puppy stage to get a service dog fully trained with the dog’s handler.
The typical training session may take three to four hours.
“We’re looking for puppies that want to play and have good concentration,” Kahapea said.
A search team consists of a service dog, a dog handler and a ground pounder.
Because the handler is occupied with following the service dog, the ground pounder’s duty is to stay behind them and survey the area.
“You look for broken pathways, spiderwebs that were knocked down, any kind of footprint, trial marks — a shoe print, foot print — that would hint a point of direction or a point of reference that put you on the right track,” Vaught said.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources, fire department and county are among the agencies that call on the rescue team when a person is reported missing.
Since its inception, the Kauai Search and Rescue K-9 Team has conducted about 20 search operations. Most of the missing people were located.
One of team’s recent success missions was in May 2013.
“We were out for two and a half days,” Kahapea said. “The person that we were looking for was a kamaaina that lives up here on the North Shore. What happened was she walked out away from the cabin.”
The team partnered up with the community, the state and the county, and ended up locating the woman.
“Some local kids spotted her, and she was delighted when she saw them,” he said.
Kahapea said anyone willing to volunteer should email the group. Members are not required to have a dog.