Santa Monica resident Dave Tractenberg’s regular job is president of a public relations company, Traction Public Relations. Tractenberg also spends countless hours training his two-year-old female yellow Labrador retriever, Ripley, to become a search dog. Every Tuesday night, Tractenberg and Ripley train together on the grounds of Franklin Elementary School. As a trailing dog, Ripley is learning how to find children and adults rapidly on a trail up to a mile long.
On a recent cold January night Tractenberg and Ripley, wearing a rescue pack with red, blue, and white blinking lights, prepared to search for volunteer Kathleen Miesionczek. First a paper towel is rubbed on Kathleen’s neck and placed in a plastic bag which Ripley smells. Using a long leash attached to Ripley’s collar, Tractenberg tells Ripley to find Kathleen. For Ripley, this training is really a game and she runs to locate Kathleen behind a bush in record time. Also volunteering to hide this night are students Janaye and her younger brother, Jeran. Volunteer Miesionczek says, “It is a great thing to do because you are helping a dog that will help find people.”
Tractenberg is training hard so that he and Ripley can participate in the official trainings that are held a few times a month on the weekends by CARDA – California Rescue Dog Association. These training sessions are sanctioned and insured by CARDA. According to Tractenberg, “Our sessions are private and are done to augment the CARDA trainings, as you really need to train your dog several times a week to get good.”
Ripley came to Santa Monica from Ridge View Labradors in Chardon, Ohio, 40 miles east of Cleveland. Owner and breeder Donna Reece said Ripley’s father recently received the designation of Master Hunter as an exceptional retriever. Reece said the Labrador retriever breed came originally from Newfoundland in the early 1800s where they were known as the St. John’s Waterdog. Retrievers helped fishermen to pull fish nets in from the shore. In England, the breed was then selected for its exceptional scent capability to locate and retrieve birds.
For Tractenberg, SAR (Search and Rescue) dog training is new. Tractenberg has been a volunteer rescue worker in one form or another for 12 years. He has been a member of SCUBA rescue teams, five years with the Ski Patrol doing mountain rescue, three years with the San Mateo Sheriff’s Department SAR, and is currently on a Disaster Medical Assistance Team (CA-9).
Eric Sheets, president of CARDA, says all search dog training starts out at the apprentice level. Apprenticeship can take two to three years and the commitment of two sponsors. “Support is almost overwhelming from the community,” said Sheets. Each of CARDA’s 250 mission-ready members has a support team who can pick up children at school, become involved in neighborhood watch when CARDA members are on a mission, and provide an “invisible supply package.”
CARDA’s members and their rescue dogs are part of a SAR mission organized by the 58 state sheriff’s throughout California under the state’s Office of Emergency Services. Sheets remarks: “It is truly an honor to be requested and used so frequently – 100 missions with multiple dogs per year. Our members are also often members of local sheriff SAR teams so as to be as responsive and integrated as possible.”
All services offered to requesting agencies and to the family of the lost person are free of charge. CARDA members incur all costs including mileage, equipment, pagers, and dog expenses. Donations to CARDA, a nonprofit organization, help to offset costs borne by each handler.
According to Sheets, regional dog teams are able to provide search dogs 24/7, 365 days a year through a rotating dispatch duty.
For more information on becoming a member of CARDA, or making a contribution, go to carda.org. CARDA, as an organization, does not accept donations of dogs.