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Working Dogs

Ronan to the Rescue

Kate Fernhoff volunteers alongside her canine sidekick, Ronan, a wilderness live find dog and human remains detection dog, as a part of various search and rescue organizations. This is the tale of their search for two lost hikers. 

The phone rang at 9 p.m. Two hikers were reported missing in the Front Range of Colorado. Kate snapped into action, packing her gear. Ronan, her 8-year-old Belgian Tervuren and search and rescue teammate, hopped up from his dog bed and perked his ears. 

Kate grabbed his rescue vest and GPS tracking collar. Ronan ran to Kate and nudged her leg with his snout: he knew it was go time.

The Search Begins

They arrived at the trailhead at 11 pm. Relentless 40° F rain poured down. Kate hadn’t slept before the search, but all-nighters weren’t new to her. When not volunteering for search and rescue, Kate is an Emergency Veterinarian. That familiar burst of adrenaline (and a few energy gel packs) sustains her at any hour. 

The Incident Commander gave Kate and Ronan their assignment and search location, and before heading out, the pair huddled up with the other search team members to organize gear and check team radios and mapping software. 

A woman poses with her search and rescue dog.

They had a 6-mile journey ahead of them before even reaching the official search spot. “Find!” she said to Ronan – and he was off. Despite the low-probability of finding someone early on, Kate instructed Ronan to search for any human scent in the area for the entire hike in. 

Better to cover their bases, just in case. 

Kate has worked with Ronan since his puppyhood. She’s learned to trust him and respect his independence. “He doesn’t like it if I try to direct his search too much. He has his way of doing things, and we try not to get in each other’s way.” 

They have the kind of working relationship that doesn’t require micromanagement. She knows he’ll do his job and do it well. 

On searches when her own motivation waivers, Kate gets a boost from Ronan’s steady enthusiasm. No matter the distance or challenge, he’s never quit on her. Even at 8 years old, he’s fit, strong, and obsessed with his job. 

A search and rescue dog walks on a hiking trail.

Now drenched, they scrambled through slick boulder fields without a trail. Ronan maneuvered the boulders with ease, sniffing and hopping from one to the next. 

Despite the significant elevation gain, sleep-deprivation, distance, and bitter cold, Ronan’s eyes were bright and his snout busy sniffing. 

Kate searched for Ronan’s signature body language when he’s in odor –a tilt of his head and a nose up high. She waited for the sign – for him to run back and jump on her to follow him to a find. 

So far, nothing. No head tilt. No running to Kate in triumph. Ronan drudged on, seeking and searching.  

At sunrise, they reached a ridge line, and the rain showered on. They stopped for a 20-minute break, and Ronan, knowing he was off-duty for the moment, flopped down on the dirt, rolling around on his back.

Team members pulled out their snacks, and Ronan jumped up to get a whiff. He’s a true opportunist – the first to pounce and snatch up any crumbs that might fall.  

A dog licks a smiling woman on the face.

The team continued their search for several more hours with no luck.

Then, they received an update. A good one. The lost hikers managed to find their way back to a trail, run into another hiker, and return to their vehicle. 

Kate and her team were relieved, as they always are when a search has a happy ending. Time to start the roughly 8 miles hike back and finish what would end up being a 17-hour journey for the team. 

A search and rescue dog hikes on a trail.

Becoming A Search & Rescue Team

For Kate, the most rewarding part of this work is not only having successful searches – but simply knowing that people are willing to spend so much of their time and personal resources to help others, regardless of the situation. It’s all volunteer work with no pay. People commit to this challenging work because they care. 

Kate herself has dedicated countless hours to the role. She’s had Ronan since he was an 8-week-old puppy and started training him from the beginning. It took 2-3 years to complete the human and dog training for certification. And getting certified was only the start. 

“In order to keep up a good quality of work in the dogs, most weeks I do specific search and rescue training about 3 times a week in addition to other fitness conditioning and training.” One of her favorite ways to keep Ronan fit is skijoring and bikejoring with the Omnijore™ Dog Joring System.  

A member of four different search and rescue organizations, Kate takes Ronan on different assignments for each – and goes through the unique recertification processes for each every two years. 

Kate and Ronan wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a job that requires passion and commitment – and this pair seems to have an endless supply of both. “It’s kind of my other full-time job in addition to being an Emergency Vet."

A dog plays with the Ruffwear Pacific Ring™ Toy.

It's not all work and no play for this pair. They love for roaming the Colorado wilderness with Ronan and her younger dog, Ion. Whether it’s backpacking, hiking, or bounding after the Pacific Ring™ Toy, they make the most of living in the mountains. 

While we hope to never need their assistance on the trails, we feel lucky to know Kate and Ronan are at the ready, willing to jump in and help – any time of day or night. 

An Emergency Veterinarian, Kate Fernhoff lives in Colorado and is a member of multiple search and rescue organizations, including: Park County Search and Rescue, Search and Rescue Dogs of the United States, Search and Rescue Dogs of Colorado, and FEMA.

Ronan, is a certified wilderness live find dog and a human remains detection dog. Kate’s latest goal is to train her younger dog, Ion, for search and rescue work. When not out saving the day, you’ll find them hiking, backpacking, and playing in the Colorado wilderness.