Katrina Kurth and her FEMA-certified search and rescue dog Kinsey live and train in Southern California, preparing themselves to work as a team in locating victims in the event of a disaster. The pair recently had the opportunity to train getting in and out of a hovering helicopter with the San Bernardino Sheriff’s office – a great learning experience and adventure! Thanks for sharing your story and photos with us, Katrina!

Kinsey, my five year old yellow Labrador Retriever, is a search and rescue dog. As a dog team, we train wherever we can. Most days, that’s a rubble pile, but every now and then we get the opportunity to try something new. In March, we were invited to a San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department Helitac Course.

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Before I arrived, I had a lot of questions swirling around in my head. How would I load up? How would I get Kinsey into and out of the helicopter? What were the safety concerns for my dog and me? But, the most important question is always: How will Kinsey react? Because once I know, I am better able to support her in locating people that are lost or trapped in disaster situations.

The day began with a lesson on safety. As the instructor spoke, he pointed out the tail rotor and the main rotor. We needed to be aware of them both and approach the helicopter as directed. The tail rotor spun low enough to the ground that if Kinsey became spooked and ran the wrong way she would be killed. If panicked, she might shake out of a flat collar and a six foot lead gave her too much freedom. That’s why it was so important that she stay close to me at all times and wear her Ruffwear Web Master Pro Harness. With two straps wrapped securely around her chest and a handle on top, there was no way for her to wiggle free. 

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Next, I practiced loading onto a grounded helicopter without Kinsey. Foot placement, what to hold and where to sit in the cabin wasn’t too hard when everything stayed in one place. I knew it would be a different story with Kinsey by my side and the helicopter hovering in the air. Then, we practiced sitting in a sling, our dogs attached to us with carabiners and a harness. Once we settled in, dogs attached securely, our instructor pushed a button to activate a hoist that pulled us up six feet in the air. None of the dogs minded much, although their legs did get a bit stiff.  

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After lunch, we went out to the tarmac and broke into groups of three. As I watched the first group run toward the helicopter, I will admit to feeling nervous. Before the helicopter started, I didn’t realize the amount of wind and noise it would generate. It was so loud that talking was pointless, and the wind was strong enough that I wasn’t steady on my feet.

My group crouched down and waited. With all of the noise and the wind, Kinsey turned, and strained against her harness to head back to the hangar. But, I had a firm grip on her harness, so she couldn’t go anywhere. I rubbed her ears. It was a comfort to us both. As our instructor waved us forward, my heart rate increased. I tightened up my grip on Kinsey’s harness. Here we go.

We walked fast, heads low to avoid the spinning blades, to the hovering helicopter. Standing by the instructor outside the door of the helicopter, the wind disappeared, but the blades cutting through the air made it difficult to hear. I watched my teammate step up into the helicopter. Once she was inside, I put both hands on Kinsey’s Ruffwear Web Master Pro Harness and lifted her up four feet in the air to my teammate. (The helicopter hovered, and the skid was so narrow Kinsey didn’t have a steady spot to place her paws and jump up.) Once she was inside, I set my feet on the skid, took hold of a strap with my right hand and yanked myself up.

I settled into my seat, plugged in my seat belt and secured Kinsey’s harness to floor of the cabin with a piece of webbing attached to a carabiner. Once the doors shut, the smell of grease and gasoline was pervasive, and the interior of the helicopter was filled with the noise of the main rotor. No wonder the pilots wore headsets! Kinsey, even tempered girl that she is, didn’t mind at all. She settled at my feet, eyes on me, wanting another scratch. Since I had the middle spot, my view was of the cockpit–lots of knobs, dials and gages. It was a quick trip around an open field, and then back to the tarmac to practice unloading.

The pilots hovered a few feet off the ground, waiting as I untwisted the carabiner that held Kinsey’s harness to the floor of the cabin and fumbled with my seatbelt. Once we were both free, I grabbed Kinsey by her harness and handed her down to my teammate. Then I turned, put my feet on the skid, and stepped onto solid ground. We walked back in a tight group, my grip on Kinsey firm, to the hangar.

What a relief. Like take a deep breath and focus on the fact that Kinsey and I came out unscathed, sense of relief. The noise, the wind, keeping a secure hand on my dog while trying to find the ground beneath a hovering helicopter while two pilots and our instructor waited overwhelmed me! I plopped down against the hangar door and hugged my girl. I learned, like I always do, that Kinsey is one brave dog. After her initial concern about the noise and the wind, she trotted right up to the helicopter with us, didn’t mind a stranger setting her inside a helicopter and stayed in her spot for the flight. I often wish I had her disposition.

After everyone had their turn loading on and off from the tarmac, four handlers and their dogs were chosen to be placed in a sling on the ground and attached with ropes and carabiners to a silver hook sent down from the helicopter. Once hooked up, one of the pilots way up in the sky turned on the hoist and lifted both dog and handler up. They loaded into the helicopter from several hundred feet off the ground. Why exactly? There are times when the weather may be too severe or the location too steep for the helicopter to land. In these cases, we may have to be lifted out of a remote area in a sling to go home. I will be honest and say I did not volunteer. But, a lot of people are braver than I am, and up they went into the sky.

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While the experience was a bit overwhelming, Kinsey and I learned so much! Thank you to the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department for helping us all be better prepared for the next disaster! While we hope it doesn’t come, we’ll be ready!

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If you’d like to follow along on Katrina and Kinsey’s training stories or learn more about this super-duo, check out Katrina’s Superdog Blog.

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