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Local rescue dogs hone their skills

August 22, 2011

Photo courtesy of Max & Ann Christensen People with the Idaho Chapter of the Oregon Trail Association are on hand to confirm that the shepherd Rocco is indicating an historical grave in the Mountain Home area. Rocco is owned by Max and Ann Christensen from Shelley.

SHELLEY — For fun, Ann Christensen from Shelley, and her trained cadaver dogs, Kessa, and Rocco, are working with the Idaho Chapter of the Oregon Trail Association to locate several suspected massacre sites along the Oregon Trial.
"Helping find historical graves is a wonderful break from what I normally use cadaver dogs for," Christensen said. "It was a blast."
To demonstrate the dogs’ abilities to the large group accompanying them, the dogs were started a long way away from a few places graves have been identified.
The dogs work the pools of scent by circling in the area and then down where the odor is strongest to pinpoint the grave sites, Christensen said. Her shepherd, Kessa, downed on top of two different rock piles that are confirmed places for graves.
Her shepherd, Rocco, was bitten by a rattlesnake on his elbow as he was searching for graves.
"Rocco was so intent about accomplishing his task he didn’t even slow down. I didn't know about the bite until it started swelling up on our way home," Christensen said. The dog is fine, by the way.
The Oregon Trail Society research old journals trying to locate massacre sites, she said.
"Researchers learn a lot from the way piles of rocks are placed," Christensen said. "This is no pressure or a lot less pressure for my dogs and I doing these historical searches."
The Christensen teams were searching an area toward Mountain Home.
More information about the Idaho Chapter of the Oregon Trail Association can be obtained on its website at www.idahoocta.org.
Christensen and her dog, Kessa, are also part of the Idaho Search and Rescue Dogs. The team has spent the summer honing their search and rescue skills.
"We pass off as a team," Christensen said. If something happened to one member of the team—either the handler or the dog—a new team would need to qualify for certification.
Christensen and her shepherd, Kessa, earned their "certification as a disaster search team" in May. They were tested on finding "live" finds.
Christensen and Kessa traveled to Salt Lake City to take a Fundamental Skills Assessment (FSA) with Utah's FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1.
The team—handler and dog—were tested on five separate components of canine disaster work. The agility component required the 6-year-old German shepherd to negotiate an agility course which included climbing an eight-foot ladder, crawling through a four-foot tunnel half the dog's height and crossing an unstable suspended swaying bridge.
Christensen then had to demonstrate her dog's ability to do "directionals" by first sending Kessa out to a designated target and then directing the dog between four targets spaced 75 feet apart in a baseball diamond pattern.
The last requirement for the team was to search for two people who were hidden on a large pile of concrete rubble. Kessa quickly located each subject concealed within the pile of concrete rubble.
She and her other shepherd, Rocco, are working hard to qualify as a "human remains disaster" team, she said.  "I call it “cadaster.”
Christensen is chair of the Canine Committee for the National Association of Search and Rescue (NASAR). This is the largest civilian search and rescue organization in the country. She manages all the canine activities for NASAR including its annual conference which was held in Reno this year.
Christensen, her husband, Max, and their shepherds attended.
At the beginning of July, this foursome flew to Baltimore, Md., and then drove to West Virginia to do joint training with Christensen's longtime friend, Kathy Holbert. Holbert has recently returned from deployment in Iraq with her cadaver dog.
While in West Virginia, Christensen and her dogs worked in a small family cemetery where soldiers from the Civil War were buried.
During that same trip, the dogs also worked in a pasture to locate the graves of slaves that had been buried during the early 1800s. The 93-year-old farmer wanted to know the location of the graves so they could be preserved.
Although they worked separately, each dog focused on a small area at the top of a hill and gave their trained indication that said they had located human remains.
"I am amazed again at the abilities of dogs," Christensen said. "It was really enjoyable being part of history and working Civil War era graves in West Virginia."
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