COAL CITY – Last year, Rikki, a 6-month-old German shepherd, was adopted from a rescue in Wisconsin. Now a year older, she’s working as a search-and-rescue dog for the Coal City Fire Protection District with her handler, Lt. Nick Doerfler.
She has had more than 200 training hours to become a search-and-rescue dog and is undergoing additional training to become a cadaver dog.
“What brought it on was we had several drownings last year, and dogs had to be brought in to assist,” Doerfler said. “In addition to that, we have several children with autism in our area who have wandering tendencies. Rikki will be able to help find them.”
Doerfler said in her initial water training for human remains detection from a boat, she was able to alert to 1 millimeter of a scent that was 3 feet under water.
He said a dog trained in water detection can pinpoint an area within a couple feet for each foot below the surface the body is. If a body is trapped 10 feet under water, the dog will give a 20-foot area to search with sonar or divers, narrowing the search on a large body of water.
As a MABAS 15 asset, she will be available to assist other fire protection districts as needed.
Morris Fire Protection and Ambulance District Chief Tracey Steffes said while police agencies in the area have tracking dogs, having another one available is a great idea. With no other agency in Grundy County having a cadaver dog, Rikki will be valuable to the county.
“It’s definitely a benefit; it gives us access to an extra dog,” Steffes said. “There isn’t always a dog on duty, and handlers are sometimes away for different reasons, so having that dog is a benefit to all of us.”
He said the dog is a tool that can be used to help recover someone after an accident, which brings closure to both the family and the department searching for them. On the law enforcement side, the Grundy County Sheriff’s Department had a K-9 retire in March. Nitro’s retirement left the county with one less dog working.
Sheriff Kevin Callahan said the department is getting a new dog on the force, purchased thanks to drug forfeiture money from Grundy County State’s Attorney Jason Helland’s office. The dog will be trained in tracking as well as narcotics detection. The department had a dog purchased, but it was found to have health problems when it went for a checkup at a local veterinarian clinic, he said. It will be September or October before the department gets a new dog.
Unlike the typical police dog, Rikki will not be used in any criminal cases.
“There are two instances where Rikki would not respond,” Doerfler said. “If there is lightning or if it’s a criminal case. She has no protection, and neither do I.”
Rikki, like other working dogs, will work only for her handler and is not trained to bite or attack. Doerfler takes care of Rikki, and she goes home with him where she is part of the family.
“It’s a huge commitment. We try to train every day,” he said. “She gets along well with my kids and our other dog.”
When he brought the idea to the fire district, he had no idea if officials would let the program move forward or if they would let him be the handler. But he felt it was something the area truly needed.
“I saw a need for it. I always wanted to be a handler,” he said. “When I was younger, I wanted to work in law enforcement with a K-9, but I became a firefighter.”
The district not only agreed to buy the dog for $375, but also agreed to let Doerfler be her handler and train with her. They are training with Leslie Sprietzer, who owns Pawsdog Illinois, a company that trains service dogs as well as search-and-rescue dogs.