Kobuk to the Rescue: A Maine Hero Dog Saves a Life
Written by Crystal Ward Kent
Like all of Maine Search and Rescue Dog handlers, Fossett is a volunteer. She paid for and trained Kobuk herself. She pays her own expenses to get to rescue sites–which can be anywhere up and down the entire length and breadth of Maine. She also goes to rescues on her personal time, and that may be as many as 25 to 30 outings each year. Multi-day rescues like the one involving Ruth Brennan mean that Fossett and Kobuk pack water, food, bug spray and other wilderness supplies and after long days battling their way through brush, sleep in Fossett’s truck. At dawn, they wake up and repeat the same difficult treks through the back country all over again.
Fossett is a CAD designer by profession, which gives her some freedom to work on the fly. She has always loved the wilderness and dogs, and wanted to help others. Becoming a certified Maine Search and Rescue Dog handler was a way to bring all of her loves together. To her, there is nothing more fulfilling than heading into the woods to bring someone home. While many breeds can be trained as search and rescue dogs, German Shepherds have long been popular because of their intelligence, strength, stamina and brave spirit. Wilderness search and rescue work is physically demanding and often means six to eight hours each day in the field. Fossett had met Kobuk’s father and liked what she saw. When she picked up Kobuk at just eight weeks old, she knew she had found the dog she needed for her work although even she didn’t know the heights he would reach. “He has that drive and that enthusiasm,” she says. “He’s always ready to go. But he’s also very sweet and loving. He LOVES people. He thinks Kobuk kisses are the best gift in the world and he is always ready to share them!”
Search and Rescue Preparation
Fossett and Kobuk spent two years working on preparing him for the five certification tests needed for him to become a Wilderness Air Scent Search Dog (he is also required to undergo two annual recertifications through MESARD). Kobuk is trained to locate human scent by putting his nose in the air and detecting it as it comes in on the wind, rather than discovering scent with his nose to the ground. Once scent is detected, he runs off to investigate further and locate the person.
Thus, wind direction is key when searching and Fossett always looks for higher ground that will enable him to best pick up scents. On any given search, Fossett is given GPS coordinates and asked to clear the area, which may cover 160 to 200 acres. It’s a big job, and an important one, because a trained dog like Kobuk is often a lost person’s best asset, since they pick up on clues that human eyes and technology may miss.
Dogs like Kobuk must not only be strong and determined in the field, they must also be fearless when it comes to riding in boats, helicopters, airplanes, ATVs and Jeeps, which are all used in rescue efforts. “We were once searching a lake for a possible body and you would see the dogs hang their heads over the side of the boat to pick up the scent,” says Fossett. “Rescue dogs are trained to find human scent from the living and the deceased. The goal is to bring resolution to the family.”
In what state Ruth Brennan would be found weighed on all the searchers as that third day dawned. As Fossett and Kobuk once again worked their way through heavy brush, Kobuk alerted to a “scent pool” near a deep ravine. People leave behind scent pools when they have been in one spot for awhile. Fossett knew that clearly Ruth Brennan had been at this location, but where was she now and was she alive? Then, as the wind shifted, Kobuk took off. In a short while, he bounded back to Fossett, barked his “alert bark,” then led her at a run 2/10ths of a mile through the woods and down into the ravine. At first, all Fossett saw was what she thought was a pile of rags, but as she started repeatedly hollering, “Are you Ruth?” a head poked up, and a feeble voice answered her back. Kobuk had found Ruth just in time.
Because Brennan had stumbled down into a deep ravine, the Maine Warden Service’s infrared cameras did not pick up her body’s heat signature, and the brush was so thick that she was not visible from the air. Only the highly sensitive nose of a trained dog was able to determine that a person was indeed there.
After a job well done, Kobuk’s greatest reward is to have someone throw his beloved “reward ball.” You are a friend for life if you throw this toy–and hopefully, repeat this game multiple times. After Ruth Brennan was medically stable and awaiting transport, Kobuk was brought over to see her. Ruth was still slightly disoriented after her ordeal and at first did not connect this large dog sitting next to her and prodding her with a ball with her rescuer. “When I explained who he was, she finally turned to him and said ‘My, you are very big and very handsome!’” says Fossett. “She then noticed the toy and when she realized what he wanted, laughed and gave it a toss. Kobuk was happy and so was she.”
Hero Dog Awards
News of the rescue was in all the media and amidst the whirlwind, Kobuk was nominated for the American Humane Association’s Hero Dog Award for Search & Rescue. Fossett was thrilled, but thought it unlikely that anything would come of it. But she was wrong. After numerous rounds of voting by the public, Kobuk was chosen the winner and named 2016 American Humane Association’s National Hero Dog/Search & Rescue! He and Fossett flew to Hollywood where they received the red carpet treatment, meeting many film and TV stars such as Pauley Perrette from NCIS, Derek Hough and Bindi Irwin, and more. They then flew to New York where they appeared on the Today show and met Kathy Gifford and Hoda Kotb. Kobuk took it all in stride. In fact, his favorite part was not the glamour of the red carpet, but rather a visit to the local library where 50 kids greeted him and learned about search and rescue dogs. “The more kids the better!” says Fossett. “There were kids petting him, sitting with him, and he loved every second.”
Today, Kobuk is happily back home in York, Maine and seems unchanged for all of his celebrity status. He is quick to invite any visitor to play his cherished ball game, and enthusiastically offers Kobuk kisses. Of course, he and Fossett are always ready should they be called to action. Most search and rescue dogs work for nine to 10 years. Usually, by that time, age and the physical toll of the job signal it’s time to retire. Kobuk is 8.5 years old and in good condition, so Fossett hopes to work with him for a few more years. In their spare time, he and Fossett do outreach about the importance of search and rescue dogs, and Kobuk also enjoys his ambassador role. “I’m so proud of him,” beams Fossett. “He’s everything I knew he would be and more. He’s a wonderful representative for all search and rescue dogs.”