Search And Rescue

Jean Musgjerd has two jobs.

By day, she’s a full-time faculty member of the Health and Physical Education department. But in her spare time, she trains search and rescue dogs.

Both jobs, she says, are remarkably similar. She finds that her 26 years of experience as a coach and teacher make training her dogs relatively easy.

“It’s a mirror image of what I do as a coach,” she said. “I’d like to say my dogs don’t argue with me, but they do, just like our student-athletes do.”

For 25 years, Musgjerd has been a member of Minnesota-Wisconsin K9 Search and Rescue, a volunteer organization whose mission is to provide trained K9 teams to help search for lost and missing people in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Volunteer members like Musgjerd own and train their own dogs, taking them on assignments when called out by law enforcement.

“I had a student here that was involved in it,” Musgjerd said of how she became interested in training search and rescue dogs. “He kept bugging me, saying I’d be good at it, and away I went. I got my first German Shepherd for a reason: to do search and rescue.”

Currently, Musgjerd is training two dogs, both German Shepherds. 2-year-old Chili is certified in tracking and human remains detection (HRD) for both land and water through Law Enforcement Training Specialists (LETS). The other, 1-year-old Chulu, is still in training.

Chulu is the fifth dog Musgjerd has trained. 14-year-old Cheyenne, one of Musgjerd’s oldest dogs, still lives with her but
is retired.

The three other handlers in Musgjerd’s unit have dogs certified in tracking, HDR, or wilderness air detection. These are the skills needed for most search and rescue operations, so the unit has at least one dog capable of responding to nearly every situation they are called out for.

While Musgjerd owns and trains German Shepherds, other handlers have Border Collies and Labs. These breeds, often referred to as working dogs, have a strong drive to work and perform tasks in return for a reward, usually a ball.

“You’re just taking that instinct, their genetics, and turning it to finding people,” Musgjerd explained.

Most important, however, is a connec-tion between the dog and its handler.

“You have to learn to be able to communicate,” Musgjerd said. “The dog has to communicate with you, and you need to be able to read the dog.”

This ability to communicate is how dogs alert their handlers when they’ve found a scent or located their quarry. Musgjerd can read her dogs’ postures and tell by how they hold themselves, where they’re looking or even by the position of their tail whether they’re on a scent. Chili will also bark to signal he’s found something.

Even with an enthusiastic and willing dog, completing search and rescue training is a long process. Musgjerd gets her dogs as seven- or eight-week old puppies, but getting them certified in any of the disciplines can take a year or two.

“We get together as a unit once a week, typically on the weekends, to train,” Musgjerd said. “We always joke because our friends say, ‘what are you doing this weekend?’ And we’re dog training. That’s kind of our passion.”

Most of the training is done in or around Rochester or La Crosse, Wis., close to where members of Musgjerd’s unit live. The training is based on games and play, and can be done almost anywhere, but it’s still work, both for the dogs and their handlers.

“Chili is a 90-pound dog. When he’s on track pulling on that leash, I have to keep up,” Musgjerd said.

Musgjerd has learned dog training through books and online resources, as well as by attending training seminars with her fellow handlers. But she also feels her background as a coach has given her an edge.

“My paid career is teaching and coaching, but really, training dogs is no different,” she said. “You have a goal and an objective, and then you break it down into smaller skills and what it is you want to do. You start at baby steps.”

However, when Musgjerd and her dogs are called out to help law enforcement, there’s more to those real-life search and rescue operations than handling the dogs.

It takes planning on Musgjerd’s part to get her dogs in the right spot and in the right conditions so they can do their job. She is also skilled in navigation using maps and a compass, doing rope rescues and providing first aid, both for herself and her dogs.

She does all this on a volunteer basis, investing her free time and energy into training her dogs and going on calls. Because she’s a volunteer, she pays for everything to take care of the dogs, from food, to medical bills, to training equipment.

“We’re not doing this for money,” Musgjerd said of herself and the other search and rescue volunteers she works with. “Our reward is working with the dogs and seeing their progression – finding a lost loved one, bringing a person home, or providing closure. That’s why we do it.”

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