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Volunteer search-and-rescue team covers large area in Georgian Bay region

Andrew Philips

By Andrew Philips, Special to Postmedia Network

Susan Read and her dogs, Zappa, centre, and Zori, are always ready to help out as members of the Georgian Bay Volunteer Search and Rescue team.

SUBMITTED PHOTO Susan Read and her dogs, Zappa, centre, and Zori, are always ready to help out as members of the Georgian Bay Volunteer Search and Rescue team.

Zappa the canine provides an essential yet heartbreaking service.

Zappa, two, and his sister, Zori, 8, are both search-and-rescue dogs working with the Georgian Bay Volunteer Search and Rescue team. The two dogs are Malinois, a Belgian purebred that looks a bit like a German shepherd.

But while Zori handles live searches for both people and possible clues to help find someone lost in the wilderness, Zappa specializes in finding cadavers, a grim yet equally important skill since it can help bring closure to families searching for a missing loved one.

"They're both very good at their jobs," said Susan Read, the pair's handler and best human friend, who lives in Lindsay.

When she finds a source, Zori will sit about five feet away and bark while Zappa will sit right down at the person and "if the source is small enough, he will (lie) down with it between his front paws."

Currently, there are about 30 members volunteering with the Georgian Bay team, which covers a huge expanse of land stretching from Collingwood and Parry Sound to Huntsville and Alliston.

"We have a great team," said Read, who decided to get involved in search-and-rescue work in 2001, serving as a ground searcher for the first seven years.

"I wanted to give something back to the community through volunteer work," she said, adding being someone who loves the outdoors made it important her volunteer contribution take her outside.

After the initial introduction as a ground searcher, Read decided in 2008 to take her love of dogs a step further by moving over to the canine rescue side of things.

"I became addicted at that point and ended up going through four dogs before finding Zori," she said. "She has an extremely high drive and is very intense and very intelligent. But everything she does is for the toy reward at the end."

From that point on, Read and Zori became inseparable and they regularly complete weekend training exercises to maintain their skills and stay sharp should they be called upon.

"We've been involved in a couple-dozen searches," she said, adding the team has a memorandum of understanding with OPP and the Midland and Barrie police services.

While Read wouldn't discuss specific cases since most have confidentiality clauses, the non-profit group's website lists a number of instances when they have been involved.

There are 19 search-and-rescue teams operating across Ontario, but since only three have canine operatives, the dogs are considered a provincial resource, according to Read, who noted that means they can be deployed to other areas if police need additional assistance and can also help track people based on evidence.

"They're looking for clues," Read said. "If the lost person dropped a mitten or cellphone, the dog can smell it."

As well, the pair undergo annual certification to keep Zori's credentials as one of only three OPP-accredited civilian rescue dogs now working in the province. The other two units are with the Ottawa Valley search-and-rescue dog association.

"There was a very different test put into place in 2004," Read said. "Only 20 (civilian) canine teams have been able to pass it. My dog has been consecutively certified for eight years."

Read and Zori travel to Gravenhurst annually, either in the fall or in the spring, to begin the certification process anew. The gruelling weekend of work goes from the traditional obedience, retrieving and agility testing to tracking searches that take them through the woods and nearby fields as well as along "low-scent" areas covered with rocks.

"If you don't pass your tracking test, your weekend is done," she said, noting dogs are also tested for tracking by scent, meaning they must figure out how to find someone only by sniffing the air. "They're not following a tracked scent."

Zappa, meanwhile, recently passed his training for the first time. He and Read travelled to Massachusetts during the Thanksgiving weekend for testing by the North American Police Work Dog Association, where dogs follow a search route that features buried sources and some water work.

While Read is strictly a volunteer, the regional team sets up a special travel budget to help defray some of her costs.

But it's not just Read and her dogs who must undergo regular, vigorous testing. The local group's high standards ensure each member is ready and trained above and beyond the certification set out by the Ontario Search and Rescue Volunteer Association and OPP.

Members provide much of their own equipment and undertake fundraising ventures to purchase major equipment, with fellow team member Moe Morris providing an example.

"(Zappa's) water searches have been limited to the shoreline and streams," Morris said. "However, this summer, the canine unit had a fundraiser and with the help of our team, we put together enough money to purchase a boat.

"Zappa will begin training on the boat so that we can take his water searches off the shoreline, onto the lakes and into deeper water."

Apart from assisting with searches, team members are involved with the Hug-a-Tree program with interested schools and/or children's groups, the K-9 Unit program and Kids Prints (a child-identification initiative).

"Our entire team is a volunteer organization that has created a local and provincial resource," Morris said. "We train to OPP-set standards to help our communities and families in difficult times."

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