FARMINGTON – Serving as a handler for a certified search-and-rescue dog may sound like an appealing job, especially for someone who loves dogs and is inclined toward community service.
But Jon Bonnette, president of the newly founded Trinity K9 Search and Rescue (S&R) nonprofit organization in Aztec, warns that the role isn’t for everyone. He’s a canine handler himself and said the requirements of the job can be considerable.
“To be the handler, it takes quite a bit of dedication,” said the Marine Corps veteran who relocated to New Mexico with his wife in the fall of 2020 after spending much of his life in Guam.
To begin with, Bonnette said, every handler must own the dog with which he or she is paired. Handlers also must be willing to work the dog tirelessly, even after it has undergone the 1,000 hours of scent training it must undergo to be ready to engage in search and rescue work.
“They go nuts if you just leave them locked in the house,” he said of canines certified for S&R operations. “They require constant engagement and exercise.”
Many of the dogs used by Trinity K9 Search and Rescue are American Belgian malinois rescue canines, which are especially well-suited for the kind of work they do with the organization. They are animals that want to be challenged both physically and mentally, Bonnette said.
“Technically, they’re not the kind of dogs that want to lay on the couch and eat Cheetos,” he said. “They’ve got to be doing something or they go crazy.”
That means they aren’t ideal pets. Bonnette acknowledged that even he can get exasperated with the demands his S&R dogs make on him sometimes, especially when all he wants to do is relax in a recliner and lose himself in a movie. A dog that is impatient to be worked doesn’t really understand that, he said, and will be inclined to make a nuisance of itself until it gets what it wants.
“They’re high-drive dogs,” he said.
But Bonnette said that, once you get hooked on working with such animals, it’s not something you can easily leave behind.
“On the flip side of that, if you do love dogs, the bond you build with that animal is second to none,” he said, adding that the rewards of doing S&R work are the best feeling in the world.
Bonnette’s organization, which began operation Jan. 1, is designed to assist local, state and federal agencies in the search for and recovery of lost or missing people. Bonnette hastens to explain that Trinity is not the only canine-assisted S&R team in the Four Corners, but he said there is plenty of need for all those teams.
After all, a single trained dog can take the place of 30 to 40 people in a search party, he said, covering the same amount of territory as all those people in much less time. In terrain such as found in the Four Corners, which is mostly wilderness, dog teams are an invaluable asset.
“That really ups the chances of finding a missing person,” he said.
And if that person has been injured and requires medical attention, that time saving can be the difference between life and death, Bonnette said.
Bonnette is retired and said his work as head of Trinity is essentially his full-time job. The organization has five team members and five dogs, and is eager to recruit new volunteers, he said.
Of course, not everyone who has an interest in such work is cut out to be a handler, but Bonnette said there are plenty of other ways volunteers can contribute. For example, every search team needs a navigator and a base camp operator, as well, he said.
Since the dog and its handler are responsible for searching a specific grid, usually a 160-acre plot, it is the navigator’s job to keep the dog and handler on course as they conduct a methodical search of that territory, Bonnette said. The base camp operator keeps track of the canine team’s progress and remains in communication with the incident commander, who oversees the entire S&R operation, he said.
Bonnette also wants to add drone operators to his team, as well as dog training professionals, he said, adding that all the dogs need to be worked at least two or three times a week.
“There’s a lot of different things they can do,” he said of anyone who volunteers for the organization. “If you love dogs, and love being outdoors, and love being involved with your community, it’s a great way to do it.”
Being a handler is especially rewarding, Bonnette said. But the job can be physically demanding, in addition to requiring great time and patience, he said.
Bonnette said that before he launched Trinity, he was involved in an S&R operation on the Navajo Nation. His canine, Izzy, traveled 30 miles in one day searching for the missing individual and Bonnette said he covered 10 miles that day – much of it up and down hills and arroyos. He said he was spent by the time the day was over.
“Many dogs move extremely fast and you’re at their mercy, so you have to keep up with them,” he said. “It’s taxing.”
If you don’t have the time or inclination to volunteer, Bonnette said that Trinity, as a new organization, has a great many needs, and welcomes donations of cash or equipment. Trinity is especially in need of kennels and a response vehicle, he said.
Bonnette can be reached by phone at 702-333-8154 or via email at [email protected] More information about the organization can be found on its website at trinityk9sar.com.
Trinity was the beneficiary of a recent fundraiser by the owners of Farmington’s Cabana Tans, and Bonnette said it went very well, with the event raising far more money than its organizers set as a goal. The money generated from that event will allow Trinity to bring in other S&R groups for cooperative training sessions, he said, and help build camaraderie between them.