I spend my Saturday mornings playing hide-and-seek.
I hide in piles of broken concrete. I wedge myself up into overturned cars. I duck behind trees and nestle down in thickets full of thorns.
And I never get to be “it,” though my dog often is.
It's serious business, this game of hide-and-seek, because we are training for K-9 search and rescue work. My dog, Helo, is a 2-year-old Australian cattle dog with a good-size brain, an active nose and a huge heart.
He's much more suited for this than I am.
Helo races through the woods, clambers over the rubble piles and slowly makes his way up and down ladders. There is not so much racing when I do it, and I am nowhere near as graceful scampering on the rubble piles.
And while it appears as far away from my day job – as a reporter for The Journal Gazette – as I can get, the more I do it, the more I realize it is as much a natural outgrowth of my personality and interests as it is my dog's.
We are a team-in-training, members of the Indiana Search and Response Team, an all-volunteer group of primarily emergency services workers who are available at all hours of the day and night to head off in search of the missing.
Our team – made up of handlers and dogs trained to find victims either alive or dead – trains at least 16 hours a month together. Our dogs learn how to play this game of hide-and-seek and love it above everything else they do. They learn how to work at a distance away from us; how to sniff out what we need them to find and tell us they have found it.
The team responds solely at the request of emergency services organizations throughout northeast Indiana – looking for missing children, wandering Alzheimer's patients or potential victims of foul play. If needed elsewhere, we would travel.
Helo and I have been at this since the fall. We worked through the winter, nearly every Saturday morning, slogging through the snow and the cold, in an effort to learn how to do this. Without a warm fluffy fur coat of my own to keep me warm, I looked like the Michelin man in layers of thermal gear and insulated coveralls.
It is going to take us awhile yet to be ready to respond with our teammates. We are training specifically to respond to disasters – to look for people in building collapses brought on by tornadoes or other events – and also to look for a live human in a large area.
Sometime in the next few months or a year, Helo's competence will be tested by the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, as will my ability to work with him and get the right results.
For my part, I am learning all kinds of stuff I never dreamed I would need to know – survival skills, emergency medical response, how lost people behave and how to trust my dog.
I suspect Helo has the easy part, as training is just a redirection of his drive to hunt and play with people.
I, though, find myself thrilled at the opportunity, hoping to one day make a difference in a way I could never have imagined.
It is an opportunity I think of every Saturday morning as I hear myself tell Helo: “Go find.”