Not gone to these dogs

Don Mason and this canine rescue partner, Cassie, are credited with three finds this past year.  - Gayle Saran
Don Mason and this canine rescue partner, Cassie, are credited with three finds this past year.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

Don Mason and Susan Marchese are passionate about two things: community service and their dogs. And for this couple, the two can go hand in hand, or paw in paw.

Along with their two golden retrievers, Cassie and Talus, the Freeland couple is Whidbey Island's only canine search and rescue -- or SAR -- team.

"About five years ago, we were looking for a way to volunteer in the community," Mason said. "We spent time with the Pierce County Search and Rescue teams and discovered it was something we both enjoyed."

The couple found the right dogs to work with in Cassie and Talus, who are like members of the family, says Marchese.

Cassie was given to the couple and Talus was a dropout from a guide dog program.

"He became too large for that duty and was looking for a career change," Mason said.

The SAR team is volunteer only and is called on by local law enforcement to aid in search efforts. They don't have any authority at a rescue or crime scene, but they do have the respect and support of the Island County Sheriff's Office.

"When Don and the dogs show up I know my job just got a little easier," said Russ Lindner, the sheriff's office search coordinator. Mason's volunteerism and commitment to the field of search and rescue are widely recognized within the discipline, Lindner said.

Lindner told of a recent search for a mental health patient who had walked away from the emergency room at Whidbey General Hospital. The patient, who fled into the nearby woods, was poorly dressed for the darkness and cold of evening. Lindner said the ensuing four hours found Mason and Marchese -- with assisting deputies -- attempting to track the mental health patient through heavy underbrush and rain. The search came to an end when the two teams were able to confine the subject to a small area.

It was the sort of result Mason wants every time he is called to search for someone.

"We live in a small community and SAR allows us to be involved and help others," said Mason.

Mason and his four-legged partner Cassie are also credited with rescuing a mother and her two daughters who had wandered off and gotten lost on Camano Island last Thanksgiving.

Mason, Marchese and the dogs have been involved in eight searches over the past two years, six of which were successful. In five years, incidents have included missing hikers, suicide victims, mentally ill or Alzheimer's patients, human remains or evidence in criminal cases.

The couple and their dogs have also traveled to other areas of the state to aid in searches in the Olympic Mountains, at Mount Rainier, and in Pierce, Skagit and Snohomish counties.

To become a successful canine SAR team takes hours of training, an arduous process for both dog and handler that requires time and patience. An important aspect of the training is developing a language that is exclusive to the handler and his or her dog, Mason said.

"Both become very sensitive to one another and are able to read each other's body language," he said.

Now that the Island couple's dogs are trained, they do three extensive exercises a month to maintain the skills of both handler and dog.

Mason demonstrated the search and rescue process by sending a test victim into Saratoga Woods -- with a head start -- to hide 40 yards off a trail behind a tree or under a log.

The sound of a bell jingling was the first indication that rescue was on the way. Followed by a bouncing light at about dog height, the end of the search came with the sound of 93 pounds of dog crashing through the thick brush. The rescue was a success.

For the dogs, the work is just a game.

"The dogs believe that a search and rescue is an intricate game of hide and seek we create for them," said Mason.

While most search dogs are trained with a reward like a toy or treat, Talus is is satisfied with affection and attention.

Mason said golden retrievers are good search dogs. They are friendly, they are scent dogs, and they have heavy double coats that enable them to travel through underbrush and blackberries without getting hurt.

Marchese said their dogs track until they pick up a scent cone, an area through which a human has passed.

"They can smell cosmetics, detergents and even a change in the odor of crushed vegetation and will follow it to the person," Marchese said. "They do well after dark, because the dogs use their noses more than their eyes." Having new scents to search for is important, since dogs catalog the scents of people they find. Marchese and Mason have to come up with imaginative games to throw new smells and situations at Cassie and Talus to keep them challenged and ready.

Mason and Marchese won't take part in searches for criminals, however.

"I won't send my dogs in after a criminal that could hurt them. They aren't police dogs," Mason said.

The SAR dog training differs from that given by Federal Emergency Management. Those dogs are trained to work away from their handler, and Marchese said she would never allow her dog to work without her.

For now the couple plans on continuing to provide SAR service locally.

"We are going to stay closer to home now," Mason said.

When they are not out on a mission searching for people, Marchese and Mason have plenty to do. Mason is the program coordinator for Island County's board of equalization and its veterans affairs department. He is also a volunteer emergency medical technician for Fire District 3, and a volunteer duty officer for Island County. Marchese, a primary school teacher in Coupeville, is a volunteer firefighter for Fire District 3.

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