New Zealand’s Land Search and Rescue (LandSAR) dog handlers venture into demanding and sometimes dangerous terrain to save the lives of people lost, trapped or injured, and they do so as volunteers. They use only the best gear when in the wilderness, and we're proud to say that Fjällräven is one of their chosen brands when it comes to their rescue kits. We spoke with LandSAR dog handler Bridget Martin about these life-saving canine teams.
How did you become involved in LandSAR?
I started with NZ LandSAR in 2004. I hailed from a competitive sporting background of professional yacht racing, having competed in two Volvo Around the World Yacht Races. I love nature and the wilderness has always attracted me, so the progression into working as a LandSAR dog handler in the wilderness fitted perfectly.
What’s involved in becoming a LandSAR handler?
Hours of commitment and training in all weathers, environments and distractions. Dogs do not lie, so if a dog does not perform as expected they have just shown you a gap in your training. The handler needs to be able to self-reflect and always be prepared to go back a step to consolidate.
What do you look for when training and assessing dogs & handlers?
First and foremost, a LandSAR Dog handler is a highly skilled field team member who can deploy with or without their dog as part of the overall search and rescue response. We want individuals who have an affinity with animals, are energetic, patient and have a willingness to persevere.
When it comes to the dog selection, there are many qualities we look for that are mostly found in the working line breeds. The dog must have inherent drives including hunt, play and prey drives. They need confidence, trainability and solid nerves in harsh environments.
What do you look for when selecting operational equipment? What features/ factors are most important?
In the space of LandSAR clothing must be light, durable, highly functional and strong enough to perform in challenging and rugged environments. Fashion does not particularly interest us either, so it's quite simple; if gear does not perform and prove itself fit for purpose, it simply will not make it into the LandSAR dog handler's backpack.
Like Fjällräven, LandSAR handlers aren't here to conquer mountains, tame rivers or beat records - we're part of a wider team committed to search and rescue in the wilderness. Sustainability and doing what is right for nature plays a very important part in the choices NZ LandSAR teams make when becoming ambassadors for a brand. When we heard about Fjällräven founder Åke Nordin sleeping outside on a balcony in winter to check the insulation qualities of his sleeping bags we thought "Gosh! that sounds exactly like something a LandSAR team member would do".
The Nose Knows
The most valuable talent of a LandSAR dog is their sense of smell. Dogs have a VERY keen sense of smell - they have 220 million scent receptors (humans only have 5 million) and once a scent is picked up can quickly and agilely follow it.
Not all LandSAR dogs perform the same type of search. Some dogs are tracking (or trailing) dogs and others are air-scent (or area-search) dogs. Some NZ
Land Search and Rescue Dogs are dual operational (qualified in both of these disciplines). The types overlap, but the distinction between the two guides are the training process and how the dogs are deployed:
TRACKING DOGS work with their nose to the ground. They follow a trail of human scent - typically heavy skin particles that fall quickly to the ground or onto bushes - through any type of terrain. These dogs are not searching, they're following a line of scent: Tracking dogs don’t necessarily need a "last seen" starting point, they can cast vast areas looking for where the lost person left the road or walking track.
AIR-SCENT DOGS (area search dogs) on the other hand, work with their nose in the air. These dogs are trained to pick up wind-borne human scent and can cover large areas of varying terrain very quickly. Area Search Dogs work in the cone of scent, narrowing it down to the source (missing person) and once having located the missing person they give a trained response. This trained response is either a “stay and bark” or a “re-find” meaning it returns to the handler after location and guides the handler back to the missing person.
EQUIPPING FOR THE UNKNOWN
The equipment which makes it into a search and rescue dog handler’s kit only gets there because it has proven itself in New Zealand's rugged wilderness, so it's no surprise to us that Fjällräven products are high up on the list. Here are a few key Fjällräven items used by the LandSAR dog handler teams:
Engineered for life above the treeline, Bergtagen jackets are optimised to offer the highest levels of performance and reliability in tough conditions.
A durable and well-equipped backpack with comfortable weight-distributing carrying system for alpine trekking. Plenty of room for equipment and a sturdy inside pocket for a water bladder.
The award-winning Keb trousers in stretch and G-1000 Eco fabric deliver excellent performance, fit and durability for maximum freedom of movement in the mountains.