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Preparing search dogs for the unpredictable

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Southern Oregon search dogs have a new way of finding their footing.

Owing to the combined volunteer efforts of a Phoenix teen and Jackson County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue, SAR’s K9 Team now has an obstacle course that will help search dogs safely navigate the difficult conditions that rescuers often face when they’re called to help.

Dylan Randall, a Phoenix High School sophomore, worked with the K9 team to design and install a multi-platform, multi-surface dog training course behind Search and Rescue’s headquarters on Antelope Road in White City.

Randall said Saturday at a ribbon-cutting ceremony that his obstacle course is designed to familiarize dogs with “different scenarios into a singular multi-tool building.” The obstacle course mixes a variety of unfamiliar surfaces — be they slick, soft or wobbly — that can be swapped out to adjust the difficulty for the dogs.

K9 Team leader Eric Ronemus said search and rescue operations often involve searches through junk piles or extensive debris in the wake of a natural disaster. For instance, Ronemus remembered how he and his search dog had to scramble while helping after the 2014 mudslide near Oso, Washington.

“You never know what you’re got to hit,” Ronemus said. “Something like this really helps.”

Shortly after the ribbon-cutting, Ronemus pointed out one dog already making progress thanks to the agility course.

K9 Muddy, a Labrador owned by volunteer Karen Barnard, initially avoided the wobbly bridge between two platforms. In just a couple hours the K9 was finding her way.

Once a dog gets familiar with the wobbly surface, trainers can swap out the standard bridge surface for one with narrow boards — meant to simulate some of the treacherous wooden bridges that search and rescuers can face out in the wilderness.

Certified search dogs undergo a variety of trainings twice a week, but K9 Team volunteer Linda Nichols said the new course will make agility training far more frequent. Prior to the obstacle course, her best agility training happened at an annual training seminar in Washington state.

“It was pretty infrequent, quite honestly,” Nichols said.

Nichols, standing with K9 Angus, her German shepherd, said being part of the dog team is a “big commitment” that includes a rigorous two-year training process just for basic certification.

Randall, working toward the rank of eagle scout with Troop 1 out of Central Point, said he’s had the idea to help search and rescue in his “back pocket” for a little more than a year, but most of the official work started in September.

Randall and his parents, Chris and Brandi Randall of Phoenix, have been search and rescue volunteers since 2016. Dylan’s exposure to the organization has left a lasting impact.

“They’re making miracles happen over here,” Randall said. “Bringing home people that get lost in the woods and finding what happens to those that don’t.”

Chris Randall, who works in construction, said he and Dylan also drew from the expertise of other craftsmen in search and rescue among other family friends.

“There was really a lot of great minds that came together,” Chris Randall said.

Dylan Randall worked with multiple Medford area businesses to collect all the lumber needed for the project from Hughes Lumber Co., Dazey’s Supply, the Truss Co. and Lowe’s, and assembled a base of volunteers with ages ranging from 13 to their 70s.

At the ribbon cutting, Sheriff Nathan Sickler presented Randall with a Jackson County Sheriff’s Office challenge coin. He said the sheriff’s office would not be nearly as effective without volunteers in search and rescue and the greater community.

“People like Dylan coming up and donating their time, effort, energy to make the sheriff’s office and Jackson County a better place — we appreciate all of you and we appreciate him,” Sickler said. “Good job.”

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

Dylan Randall, a Phoenix High School sophomore, worked with local search and rescue volunteers to create the new obstacle course. Photo by Denise Baratta
John Lovegrove helps Kashi learn to cross an agility bridge while Karen Barnard and Muddy Girl watch at the new Jackson County Sheriff search and rescue canine agility course in White City. Photo by Denise Baratta