About Coconino County

About Coconino County

Encompassing 18,661 square miles, Coconino County, Arizona, is the second largest county in the U.S. but one of the least populated. Our county includes Grand Canyon National Park, the Navajo, Havasupai, Hualapai and Hopi Indian Reservations, and the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the world. Elevations range from 2,000 feet above sea level along the Colorado River to 12,633 feet at the summit of Mt. Humphreys in Flagstaff.


A few months ago, just after our Search & Rescue team acquired a special member with an extra-special skill, I became part of our newly-formed K-9 committee. On January 17th, an article in the Arizona Daily Sun stated, "Like all volunteers with the Coconino County Sheriff's Office's Search and Rescue unit, Cassie wears a snappy vest with a departmental patch on it and a badge bearing her name and a photo. She's a dedicated professional, working daily to keep sharp her mind and body--especially her nose."

Though most trained work dogs usually cost thousands of dollars--I've heard figures up to $20,000!--Cassie was donated to our unit by a Tuscon breeder who has also provided dogs to the Border Patrol Search, Trauma & Rescue Team. Cassie now lives with Al and Joan, husband and wife members of our team, who I first met during Basic SAR Training. Al is very agile and quick, and, being Cassie's primary handler, that athleticism certainly comes in handy. I recently had an opportunity to go out in the field with Al, another member of our committee, and Cassie, who works on a 30-foot lead, and that four-legged girl is fast, especially when she's sure she's on the scent. The three of us took her out for a training session, not only for Cassie but also for those of us who'll be working with her. And I was certainly impressed.

During the training session, we took turns getting lost. Then, whoever was handling Cassie would give her a sample of the scent, and off she'd go with the handler in tow. When it was my turn to lay the track, I tried to trip her up. I zig-zagged along the route, circled a tree, jumped across some areas still covered with snow and, just before selecting a hiding place, went around a large water tank the more difficult way--clockwise--where the tank is up against a rock-covered slope. I went three-quarters of the way around the tank before hiding behind a tree. And, sure enough, Cassie found me. I was later told that she did double-back at one point when she lost my trail, but she figured out where she'd gone wrong and picked it up again. When she got to the water tank, Cassie followed my scent the way I'd walked, instead of taking the easier and shorter route--counter-clockwise--to where I was hiding, proving what I'd been told--that Cassie is a ground-scent tracker rather than a dog who follows an air scent. If she'd been following my air scent, she likely would have gone counter-clockwise around the tank.

I'd assumed that Cassie would be excited when she found the person she was tracking, but that wasn't the case. When she found me, she just kept sniffing around my feet, almost as if I weren't there. What she does get excited about is her toy. As the Daily Sun article pointed out, "Cassie doesn't work for treats, but she does earn plenty of praise and a fun tug-of-war session with a chunk of rubber hose attached to a long piece of rope." After she completed each task, Al would pull out the toy as her reward, and Cassie would go berzerk.

Another statement from that article definitely holds true, as I've found each time I've been around Cassie: "Not a hyperactive dog, but not one to sit still, Cassie smells chairs, asphalt, garbage bins, the floor, pant legs--her snout is in perpetual motion, twitching while it turns this way and that. This dog was born to sniff." But the reporter did leave something off her list of where Cassie sticks her nose; when I first met her, it was like, "Woo! Watch that big shnoz!" I've definitely never seen a dog that views and catalog the world quite so much through its snout.

My primary role regarding Cassie will be as the "Nav/Comm" person, meaning the one who takes charge of the maps, GPS and compass, and radio while following--perhaps at times running--behind the handler, who will be too busy working with Cassie to perform navigation and communication functions. I'll also assist the other members of the committee with K-9 fundraising and community events to introduce Cassie to the public. I've yet to work with Cassie on an actual mission, but I'm looking forward to being part of it when it happens. It's up to our coordinator, Sergeant D, to decide if a mission calls for Cassie's expertise, and I'm hoping that we'll soon have an opportunity to show the public what she can really do.