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By Dan Rudy 

Local Golden Retriever to the search-and-rescue


Dan Rudy/ Wrangell Sentinel

Steve Prysunka and his son, Sam, pause for a group photo with their dog, Katilli. A golden retriever, Katilli is in training to serve as a search-and-rescue dog for the Wrangell area.

There are a lot of reasons people decide to get a dog. Besides being pets or boon companions, canines can also serve in a number of capacities from assisting the blind to herding, hunting, detecting pests and sledding.

Steve Prysunka decided he wanted his family dog to help his community as a tracking dog for Wrangell Search and Rescue, a division of the volunteer fire department. It will fill a need since Wrangell's emergency services have not had local access to search-and-rescue dogs for the past few years.

"She's operational, but she's not certified," he explained. The dog will continue with her training, and Prysunka thinks it will be another year before she gets certification.

The dog, Katilli, is an 18-month-old golden retriever the Prysunkas acquired from a Sitka breeder. Although German shepherds tend to be better at such work, Prysunka explained he wanted a more family-oriented dog.

Besides, the dog has pedigree on her side.

"Her mother is a great search dog up in Sitka," said her owner, and a litter-mate is likewise being trained into the vocation.

Katilli took part in her first big search effort last week, helping authorities search for a boy on uninhabited Etolin Island. The boy was found unharmed, though Prysunka's dog didn't make the find.

"It was a good learning experience for the dog and myself," he said.

Katilli is still working on being able to pick up a scent on heavily-trafficked or faint trails. Although her sense of smell is highly nuanced, windy days can also be distracting.

Prysunka will be taking Katilli to Juneau's Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search (SEADOGS) for further training next month. He will also be taking her to the National Association for Search And Rescue training session coming up in September.

Though pets can always be an expense, training a dog to perform work is even more of an investment. Prysunka explained that much of these costs are travel expenses.

He has received help in defraying some of the costs. Stikine Sportsmen has put up funds for the upcoming training sessions, as has the Wrangell Volunteer Fire Department. He said the State of Alaska is also interested in sponsoring some of his dog's training.

"The dog, I'm hoping, will be trained for cadaver work," or body recovery, as well as wilderness scenting, Prysunka said.

In Alaska's wilderness areas bears are something for a tracking dog's handler to be wary of. Earlier this month a Cordova-area woman was mauled after her two dogs attracted the attention of a bear and drew it back toward her while hiking. She survived the encounter, but because dogs can be unpredictable around bears, such occurrences are not uncommon.

That in mind, Prysunka always carries bear-deterrent spray and a handgun when he's out with his dog

"It is a concern with search dogs," he said, because their work often takes them off the beaten trail.

The dog is also outfitted with equipment-bells and a radio collar are attached to her high-visibility vest. This helps the dog's handler keep tabs on its movements during a search.

"Especially in brush, it's nice to see where she's going," Prysunka said. He explained that Katilli is also trained to return to him now and again and to find human help as soon as she makes her find.

The handler also helps guide the dog visually when it becomes lost or confused. But Katilli's training process has been a learning experience for both parties.

"It's constant learning," Prysunka admitted. There have been times where eyes weren't enough, and the dog's sense of smell really did win the day. During a training day in Sitka, Katilli found a camouflaged instructor who was hidden only a short distance from Prysunka, completely out of sight.

"I'm still amazed when she finds a person," he said. "It's like black magic."

In the end, it's about engaging the dog's interest.

"To the dog it's a big game," he said. "It's all fun. It's got to stay fun or she won't want to work."

Incentives never hurt, either. "The dog works for cheese sticks," Prysunka said.


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