Aging a trail – or waiting for a runner’s scent to fade before starting a search – was one of the first things Ginelle Hennessey learned about training a search-and-rescue dog.
“The longer you age a trail, the longer the scent has to dissipate throughout the area,” said Hennessey, who is training a 7-month-old German shepherd to be the Wonder Lake Fire Protection District’s first-ever search-and-rescue dog.
After 30 minutes and when a runner is at least 800 feet down a trail, Hennessey will send the dog, named Jäger, to go find them.
Once Jäger is fully trained and certified, he will be the first fire department search-and-rescue K-9 in McHenry County, Fire Chief Michael Weber said.
In the past, when the department needed a search-and-rescue dog to find missing people thought to be on foot, they used a team from West Chicago, Weber said. If that dog is available, it can take up to two hours for the team to arrive.
“If we had our own [K-9], it would be a much quicker response” when timing is critical, Weber said.
The department also can call for police department dogs, Weber said. The difference is fire department dogs are trained specifically to track and are less aggressive than law enforcement search dogs.
Training a search-and-rescue dog is something Hennessey, 30, wanted to do even before she joined the district as a part-time firefighter and paramedic in 2018. She’d worked with a German shepherd breeder in Harvard and grew up with the breed with her family in Wonder Lake.
Hennessey was going to school for physical therapy and stepped away from training dogs. Then she did a 24-hour ride-along with her brother, who is also a firefighter. She changed career paths and thought K-9 dog training “would be very cool to get back into.”
A K-9 firefighter wasn’t something in the district budget, Weber said.
So Hennessey took on the project herself, researching dog breeders specializing in K-9 dogs. She bought Jäger herself and is paying for the training and Jäger’s food out of pocket.
While a small amount was set aside for the project in the 2022-23 budget, Weber said he plans to add more in the next budget cycle starting May 1.
The department also is accepting donations from anyone interested in funding Jäger and is working with a custom T-shirt company to sell Wonder Lake and Jäger T-shirts as a fundraiser. The design has not been finalized.
Ultimately, Weber said he would like to see a regional two-dog team with a drone operator “to assist with [missing people] locations and sizing up fire incidents and large disaster incidents.”
Weber hopes other county fire services may be interested in combining forces for the two-dog team, he said. “We are hoping other departments jump on the bandwagon.”
Once Jäger is certified, “we will go to any department in McHenry County” or the region to aid in a search, Weber said. “If [Hennessey] is available, she will be there.”
Hennessey’s wife, Jen Hennessey, is helping with Jäger’s training. They started practicing by having Jen drop a towel with her scent on it and have Jäger search for her around the yard.
“Now he doesn’t need to see the runner. He will come up on the towel and doesn’t need to see who dropped it anymore” to track the runner, Jen said.
Jäger joins their two dogs at home: pit bull Rummy and another German shepherd, Cider.
Yes, Hennessey said, she names her animals after alcohol as her own last name is similar to a brand of cognac. After naming Jäger, they also realized in German, it means “hunter.”
The other dogs will play with the puppy, but when playtime stops, Jäger goes into his kennel. When he is not in his kennel, he is working and needs to understand the difference, Hennessey said.
Right now, they are training about four hours a week, not counting the 45-minute drive, off work hours. It costs about $200 a week for the classes. The plan is to have Jäger train in water rescue and scent detection in addition to tracking on land.