By Beth Altena
“From top to bottom the entire organization is volunteer,” said David Homant, owner of Kent County Search and Rescue trailing dog, Gus. Homant and Gus were at the Kent County Sheriff Department Mounted Unit at 4687 Kies, in Rockford and Plainfield Township on Saturday, May 21 to take advantage of a special opportunity. Dogs and horses that serve the public were treated to a free eye exam by Harriet Davidson, DVM, DACVO who was donating her time and expertise to look at the health of the horses and dogs through their eyes.
Davidson, of Blue Pearl Veterinary Partners and GD Veterinary Opthalmology, was participating in the ninth annual National Service Animal Eye Exam of the American College of Veterinary Opthalmologists.
The facility was jumping with dogs on a warm Saturday afternoon, as members of the Search and Rescue team waited for their dogs’ turns to be examined and the horses waited for their turns to be examined in a darkened stall in the century old barn on the property.
Gus is a trailing dog, one who searches while leashed to his owner, as opposed to other dogs on the team who are trained as scent dogs. Scent dogs work off leash in an attempt to locate the scent of the person being sought. According to Homant, Gus is his one-and-only professional service dog, and when Gus retires from Search and Rescue, Homant will, too.
“I’m retired and I’ve lived a very good life,” Homant explained. “This is my giveback to the community.” Homant explained that Gus, a red lab, is an unusual color. “Lab litters are typically chocolate, black and yellow. You have to breed a red to a red to get a red lab.”
Homant said Kent County Search and Rescue dogs serve a variety of purposes, and come in a variety of breeds. Abel is an English shepherd, age two and a half, who is also a trailing dog. Cletis is a bloodhound, age four, who is also a trailing dog. He’s a 92-pound marvel with “paddle paws,” whose long ears and extra facial skin funnel smells from the ground straight to his massive and excellent nose. He has not yet completed his training to be certified for official Search and Rescue. His owner said she joined the team for the strength of the relationship between owner and dog that develops from being a working team.
“It’s a way different relationship than that with a pet,” she said. Although bloodhounds are known for their exceptional sense of smell, hounds typically can’t be let off leash because once on a scent they follow it. In addition to trailing dogs, Search and Rescue can be trained as scent dogs and disaster dogs, all with their own specialties.
The investment in time and money for the volunteers of the K9 unit are not insignificant. The time it takes for both the dog and human is up to two years before becoming certified. The Kent County Search and Rescue team meets monthly to train, but the K9 unit teams meet on a weekly basis and accrues thousands of hours on the job. “All the training is done to make the dogs and us proficient,” Homant stated.
The unit, although volunteer, is under the Kent County Sheriff Department and is only deployed when directed to by the county. “We don’t self deploy,” he said.
Homant also pointed out that the majority of handlers there for the free eye screening were women, which, in his experience, is typical. “Women are formidable. These women are all A types, or would describe themselves that way. We all are people who want to help our fellows. It isn’t easy and it isn’t cheap. There is no funding of any kind for this.”
Kent County’s K9 search and rescue all consist of handlers and dogs who are trained to certifications and have an excellent reputation. Few Michigan communities have a similar unit, so it isn’t uncommon for the Kent County team to be called to deploy elsewhere in the state. Because of the high standards of the Kent County Unit, other municipalities are confident calling for their help. “Our dogs are mission-ready and cops know they are getting a known entity,” said Homant.
Dr. Davison said she believes in volunteering to examine the dogs and other service animals because vision is so vital to what they do, but more importantly, the animals themselves serve such a vital purpose in the lives of humans. She said she has seen Leader dogs, Guide dogs, Assistant dogs, therapy dogs and even dogs who help people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The parent organization (ACVO) that arranges the volunteer testing is responsible for ophthalmologists examining 5,000 to 6,000 animals yearly. And eye testing can lead to saving lives in some cases.
“I love all animals,” she said. “Dogs and horses develop such a strong bond. I have heard cat owners develop a strong bond with their cats, but it is hard to get cats trained.” Interviewed by several television crews, Davidson said the most unusual animal whose eyes she examined was a seal working for the Navy.
“This is something we can do to give back to animals who serve us,” she said. She described animal vision as very different from human vision. It is a common misperception that dogs and other animals only see black and white or shades of grey. In fact, they do see colors, just on a more muted level than we see. Because our eyes may be distracted by vivid vision with bright color, their vision allows them to better pick up on movement, a useful evolution in animals that have to hunt for a living. It also allows them to see better than humans in dim light, specifically dawn and dusk.
“It’s fun to look at horses, they are usually well-behaved,” Davidson noted. She said every pet owner can we aware of their animal’s eye health by watching for tearing, squinting or rubbing their eyes. “If there is a concern, the first stop is their regular veterinarian.”
She said this free service is open to all owners of service dogs, not just law enforcement, and anyone who has a service animal can sign up in April to schedule a free evaluation. “We do this annually,” she said. Information can be found at the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologist (ACVO) website at http://www.acvo.org.
Over the past eight years over 45,000 animals have benefited from the free eye exams. Other animals who have been seen include those who guide, hearing assistance, drug detection, police/military, search and rescue, therapy, and those assisting people with disabilities other than blindness. The testing may mean the animal will be able to serve longer, or it may affect the quality of the working animal’s life—something anyone with a service dog cares passionately about.
Jilian Rakow’s dog Lego was tested last year and a tumor was discovered in his eye. He ended up losing the eye, but had the problem not been discovered he could have lost his life if the tumor invaded other parts of his body. Today Lego is alive and well and is part of the training for the horses at the Mounted Division, familiarizing them with having dogs rush up to them, something they need to be prepared for when out on their own missions, often in crowds of civilians or at parades.
Lego—whose name started out as the Lord of the Rings elf Legolas but was shortened by the family children—is an example of the dedication necessary to perform in Search and Rescue. Today he is six years old, but he began training for the job at four months of age and was not certified until he was two years old. Because of the loss of his eye, he retired from Search and Rescue.
“It takes a village to train a search and rescue dog,” Rakow said. “Every dog here needs to be trained by all the people involved.” She said she is a true believer in the value of the free eye exams for all service animals, especially after her experience with her own dog. She wasn’t even the one who took him to the eye check. She was out of town and wasn’t going to bother but her friend insisted Lego go and volunteered to take him. It could well have ended up saving his life. Rakow, who is also very involved in the Mounted Unit and the horses there, decided to see if Davidson was open to examining the horses along with the dogs this year. The answer was yes.
“This program is so important to me because of that,” said Rakow. “That’s why we brought this program to the horses. It’s become quite the community event. If you have a working animal you should take advantage of this. These animals contribute so much.”
Over at the horse barn the eye exams continued, and first in line was Old Beau, who is into his twenties. He has been cared for by his regular vet for teary eyes, so Rakow wanted him to be seen first. The horses who age out of the Mounted Division work stay on at the farm as permanent residents for the rest of their lives and Beau could be lucky enough to live into his early thirties. He has his forever home at the former farm, which was donated to the Kent County Parks Department with the understanding the property would be preserved for public use.
The horses and their riders, like the dogs and their handlers, deploy at the request of the Kent County Sheriff Department and are a sub-division of the traffic squad. In addition to search and rescue duties, the horses are used for crowd control at events, such as Art Prize and festivals and parades. The facility itself is also host to a wide variety of events scheduled there by different parties, from Scout tours to equestrian teams who practice or compete on the grounds. “Every day these horses impact somebody,” said Rakow.
For the dogs and their handlers, Homant also had strong sentiments about the value of the work they do. “Search and Rescue team members spend their own time and their own money and are available day and night. It doesn’t matter if it is Thanksgiving Day or Christmas Eve, when the call goes out, we go.”