Nonprofit canine search-and-rescue organization in Aztec seeks volunteers

·5 min read

FARMINGTON — Serving as a handler for a certified search-and-rescue dog may sound like an appealing job, especially for someone who loves dogs and is inclined toward community service.

But Jon Bonnette, the president of the newly founded Trinity K9 Search and Rescue nonprofit organization in Aztec, warns that the role isn't for everyone. He's a canine handler himself, and he said the requirements of the job can be considerable.

"To be the handler, it takes quite a bit of dedication," said the Marine Corps veteran who relocated to New Mexico with his wife in the fall of 2020 after spending much of his life in Guam.

To begin with Bonnette said, every handler must own the dog with which he or she is paired. Handlers also must be willing to work the dog tirelessly, even after it has undergone the 1,000 hours of scent training it must undergo to be ready to engage in search-and-rescue work.

"They go nuts if you just leave them locked in the house," he said of canines certified for S&R operations. "They require constant engagement and exercise."

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Trinity K9 Search and Rescue president Jon Bonnette works with his dog Izzy by tossing her a rope, which Bonnette says is a reward for good behavior.
Trinity K9 Search and Rescue president Jon Bonnette works with his dog Izzy by tossing her a rope, which Bonnette says is a reward for good behavior.

Many of the dogs used by Trinity K9 Search and Rescue are American Belgian malinois rescue canines, which are especially well suited for the kind of work they do with the organization. They are animals that want to be challenged both physically and mentally, Bonnette said.

"Technically, they not the kind of dogs that want to lay on the couch and eat Cheetos," he said. "They've got to be doing something or they go crazy."

That means they aren't ideal pets. Bonnette acknowledged that even he can get exasperated with the demands his S&R dogs make on him sometimes, especially when all he wants to do is relax in a recliner and lose himself in a movie. A dog that is impatient to be worked doesn't really understand that, he said, and will be inclined to make a nuisance of itself until it gets what it wants.

"They're high-drive dogs," he said.

Trinity K9 Search and Rescue president Jon Bonnette holds his dog Kate by the collar just before she is released to find a target during a training exercise.
Trinity K9 Search and Rescue president Jon Bonnette holds his dog Kate by the collar just before she is released to find a target during a training exercise.

But Bonnette said once you get hooked on working with such animals, it's not something you can leave behind easily.

"On the flip side of that, if you do love dogs, the bond you build with that animal is second to none," he said, adding that the rewards of doing search-and-rescue work are the best feeling in the world.

Bonnette's organization, which began operating Jan. 1, is designed to assist local, state and federal agencies in the search for and recovery of lost or missing people. Bonnette hastens to explain that Trinity is not the only canine-assisted S&R team in the Four Corners, but he said there is plenty of need for all those teams.

After all, a single trained dog can take the place of 30 to 40 people in a search party, he said, covering the same amount of territory as all those people in much less time. In terrain like the Four Corners, which is mostly wilderness, dog teams are an invaluable asset.

"That really ups the chances of finding a missing person," he said.

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Izzy, one of the dogs at Aztec's Trinity K9 Search and Rescue, responds to a command from her handler. Search canines undergo 1,000 hours of scent training.
Izzy, one of the dogs at Aztec's Trinity K9 Search and Rescue, responds to a command from her handler. Search canines undergo 1,000 hours of scent training.

And if that person has been injured and requires medical attention, that time savings can be the difference between life and death, Bonnette said.

Bonnette is retired and said his work as the head of Trinity is essentially his full-time job. The organization has five team members and five dogs, and it is eager to recruit new volunteers, he said.

Of course, not everyone who has an interest in such work is cut out to be a handler, and Bonnette said there are plenty of other ways volunteers may contribute. Every search team needs a navigator and a base camp operator as well, he said.

Since the dog and its handler are responsible for searching a specific grid, usually a 160-acre plot, it is the navigator's job to keep the dog and handler on course as they conduct a methodical search of that territory, Bonnette said. The base camp operator keeps track of the canine team's progress and remains in communication with the incident commander, who oversees the entire S&R operation, he said.

Bonnette also wants to add drone operators to his team, as well as dog training professionals, he said, adding that all the dogs need to be worked at least two or three times a week.

"There's a lot of different things they can do," he said of anyone who volunteers for the organization. "If you love dogs and love being outdoors and love being involved with your community, it's a great way to do it."

Orion, a human remains detection canine, waits for his turn to play during a training session at Aztec's Trinity K9 Search and Rescue.
Orion, a human remains detection canine, waits for his turn to play during a training session at Aztec's Trinity K9 Search and Rescue.

Being a handler is especially rewarding, Bonnette said. But the job can be a physically demanding one, in addition to requiring great time and patience, he said.

Bonnette said before he launched Trinity, he was involved in an S&R operation on the Navajo Nation. His canine, Izzy, traveled 30 miles in one day searching for the missing individual, and Bonnette said he covered 10 miles that day — much of it up and down hills and arroyos. He said he was spent by the time the day was over.

"Many dogs move extremely fast, and you're at their mercy, so you have to keep up with them," he said. "It's taxing."

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Raaz, a human remains detection canine at Trinity K9 Search and Rescue, waiting for a command during a training session.
Raaz, a human remains detection canine at Trinity K9 Search and Rescue, waiting for a command during a training session.

If you don't have the time or inclination to volunteer, Bonnette said Trinity, as a new organization, has a great many needs and welcomes donations of cash or equipment. Trinity is especially in need of kennels and a response vehicle, he said.

Bonnette can be reached by phone at 702-333-8154 or via email at trinityk9sar@gmail.com. More information about the organization can be found on its website at trinityk9sar.com.

Trinity was the beneficiary of a recent fundraiser by the owners of Farmington's Cabana Tans, and Bonnette said it went very well, with the event raising far more money than its organizers set as a goal. The money generated from that event will allow Trinity to bring in other S&R groups for cooperative training sessions, he said, and help build camaraderie between those groups.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.

This article originally appeared on Farmington Daily Times: Trinity K9 Search and Rescue dogs aid in finding lost, missing people