Howard Lake-Waverly Herald, Feb. 7, 2000

HLWW student loses two companions and a year of hard work

By Andrea Vargo

For most people the loss of a dog means the loss of a beloved family pet or favorite hunting dog.

An accident in Mankato Feb. 3 took the lives of three search and rescue (SAR) dogs and the better part of a year of hard work for John Amborn of Cokato.

Two of those highly trained dogs belonged to Amborn, a junior at Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted High School.

A kind of fog hangs over that whole evening, said Amborn.

"I really don't remember (some of the details)," he said.

About 10:30 p.m. Thursday, someone knocked on Amborn's door. He and his mother just moved into their apartment and didn't even have their phone connected, yet.

"Your dogs are injured, and you need to drive to Dassel immediately," the person said.

Without another thought, Amborn got into his car and drove from Cokato to Dassel.

A police officer was there to direct him to a spot on old Highway 15, where a helicopter was waiting to take him to Mankato.

It took about a half hour to reach the accident scene, and the helicopter landed on the highway.

A veterinarian met Amborn and told him that he was working on Amborn's yellow Labrador, Cody.

So, Amborn went to his second dog, a bloodhound named Coby. The dog appeared to not be breathing, but Amborn didn't give up. He spent 15 minutes giving CPR to the animal, before he finally called it quits.

While he was working on the bloodhound, he happened to glance over at Cody. She turned her head to look at the two of them.

"She was crying," said Amborn.

By the time Amborn finished working with the bloodhound, the Labrador had been air-lifted to the University of Minnesota Small Animal Hospital in St. Paul.

She underwent surgery for two shattered hind legs and a broken hip. The vet who spoke to Amborn Friday morning told him a preliminary cut into one leg spilled bone fragments into his hand.

Cody, the Labrador, did not make it.

The two animals were trained cadaver dogs and were to assist in finding bodies at the site of the Alaska Airlines crash in California.

They were on their way from the kennel where they were staying to the airport to be shipped to California.

The dogs were in a special dog trailer behind a pickup truck driven by Dave Johnson of Rochester, when it was struck from the rear by a semi-tractor.

Johnson's bloodhound was killed immediately, and Amborn's bloodhound died from internal bleeding at the scene.

"We are trained not to let our emotions out when we are in a situation, so it really hasn't hit me yet," said Amborn Friday.

Make the decision

How do you decide to do search and rescue (SAR)?

Amborn has always wanted to be a firefighter.

A friend and mentor, Bruce Mumford, a Cokato fireman, passed the word around that Amborn was interested in SAR, and Amborn was directed by other firefighters to Rochester to watch a SAR group work its dogs.

He was impressed with the team. They marked out four square miles. Each dog had to cover 10 grids. He liked the way the dogs and handlers worked as a team, he said.

Even before watching the teams, Amborn said he felt SAR was something he wanted to do. It fits with a life as a firefighter, he said.

It was difficult to start as a complete novice, and Amborn admits he is mostly self-taught in everything from his dog training to being a K-9 paramedic.

First, he read all the books he could find on SAR. Then he observed some of the five SAR groups in the state to learn their training methods.

Training the dogs

Cody and Coby were special, said Amborn - not that he would be prejudiced as their owner and trainer.

It took seven months just to find two female dogs that would work together. A SAR dog can have no aggressive behavior towards other dogs or people, said Amborn.

One of the tests he used on the puppies he tried out is to have the pup follow a moving shadow for at least 15 minutes.

They have to show intensity for chasing and finding things, he said.

Not knowing if there was financial help available to purchase a promising puppy, Amborn used his own money to buy, test, and ultimately resell more than 10 puppies before he found two that clicked.

Cody, the yellow Labrador, came from a kennel near Ely, while Coby, the bloodhound, came from Washington state.

Coby was almost a rescue job, said Amborn.

His girlfriend, Amy, gave him a subscription to a newsletter that lists rejected police dogs.

Some bloodhounds were listed as dogs that refused to bite. When Amborn got there (Washington), the dogs were only seven weeks old and their living situation was not the best, he said.

A bloodhound is not supposed to bite, only trail, and "How could anyone know if a seven-week old pup will bite?" asked Amborn.

So, to get the pup out of what he considered a bad situation, he brought Coby home.

Training a SAR dog is a big commitment, he said.

"I train about 20 hours per week, and then take them someplace else on Saturdays and Sundays," he said.

The dogs need a lot of different social experiences. They have to be able to handle most anything that comes along.

Cody and Coby learned to ride in helicopters (courtesy of the Linwood Fire Department), payloader buckets, on trains, and planes.

Amborn and his dogs spent five days straight on the runways at Twin Cities International Airport to get the dogs used to planes and the noise of an airport.

They need to stay cool around emergency vehicles, flares, and a host of other things that might be around during a disaster or other serious situation, he said.

The animals can be trained for any or all of about 15 different areas of SAR, such as finding cadavers and graves, air or ground scenting, underwater cadavers or live persons.

"The more training you give your dogs, the more calls you get," said Amborn.

Since Amborn is so far away from any organized group, he would ask questions of the Rochester group and then go home and apply the lessons he learned from them.

He did his basic obedience training with Crow River Obedience in Darwin.

Of course obedience training a bloodhound is kind of a relative thing, said Amborn.

Being a scent hound, Coby was always focused with her nose on the ground. Because of this intense focus, she has cost Amborn about $8,000 in damages to vehicles, boats, and other things, he said.

Amborn explained that when a bloodhound trails, the ears tend to fall over the eyes, and they put their nose to the ground and just go.

For example, Coby was once on the scene of a drowning near Litchfield.

"I forgot to put her leash on, and she put her nose down and ran - thunk! - right into a fire truck, a boat, a tree, and several firemen," he said.

At 100 pounds, Coby tended to dent what she hit. She had also knocked herself unconscious once, he said.

"The first time I took her to a vet, she crawled under the exam table and raised her head. Whack!," said Amborn.

The bloodhound got a chance to work with a real cadaver, once.

"She licked it when she found it. Then she came to me and tried to lick me.

"I'm yelling, 'Get away!'

"I swear, all the slobber she produced could have been used by NASA for something (perhaps glue)," said Amborn.

Coby the bloodhound was only 11 months old when she died. She was due to get her national SAR certification in California Saturday.

"Most people don't train their dogs as early as I did. They usually wait until they are at least a year old," said Amborn.

But with no one around to tell him he couldn't train a dog really well that young, he did it. Beginners luck? Probably not.

A lot of time went into Amborn's two dogs, and that time can never be discounted when training an animal, say the experts.

Cody the Labrador was certified at eight months, and she was just a little over a year when she died.

"She was super with narcotics. She also went to Turkey with a handler from Rochester as part of her training," said Amborn.

Now that he has had actual experience in working SAR, Amborn has found a real, personal satisfaction when someone is found alive.

"But you have to be able to deal with it if they are dead," he said.

Tragedy turns to goal

On the heels of this personal tragedy, Amborn spins out a dream to organize a new SAR group in this area of the state.

He explained that any dog with the right instincts, purebred or mutt, can be a SAR dog.

The handler has to be in reasonable physical condition, because if the dog is injured on the job, it is the handler's responsibility to bring it out safely.

Now, that might not be too hard with a Shetland Sheepdog, but it can be a daunting task with a 200-pound Newfoundland, he said.

A pack, containing 72 hours of survival gear for dog and handler, has to be carried by the handler, also, Amborn noted.

"You need to know how to survive in case you get lost," said Amborn.

Knowledge of map and compass reading is a must, and the new global positioning systems add a new dimension to the training needed for safe SAR, explained Amborn.

An example of how things can really go wrong was given by Amborn.

"One man in Colorado went to search for a lost person with his dog.

"He didn't tell anyone he didn't know how to read a compass and got very lost in the woods.

"The SAR group had to find him as well as the original lost person. It was embarrassing," said Amborn.

People don't have to have a dog to be involved with a SAR group, he stated.

There is always a need in training for helpers and people to hide, he said.

Amborn will not let this disaster stop him from doing what he loves. He wants to get another dog as soon as he can find the right one.

He had someone from out of state ship him a Newfoundland puppy Wednesday before the accident, and he will probably look for another Labrador, he said.

This time he will not be the shy novice, and he knows he needs to ask more questions.

How can a SAR group be financed, and how can he find others who want to do SAR?

Where do the good dogs come from? How can they be matched with the right handlers?

Amborn said he hopes a group can be in the start-up phase by the time summer comes.

Anyone who is interested in being a part of such a group should call John Amborn at 320-286-2543.

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