Dog Handlers Form Nonprofit to Support, Train Canines Deployed by Law Enforcement

Flathead County sheriff’s deputies, volunteer search and rescue teams collaborate in effort to provide more effective response to emergencies

By Andy Viano
Julie Balch of Flathead County Search and Rescue works with cadaver dog Talyn, a Belgian Malinois, during a training session at the FairBridge Inn in Kalispell on Dec. 17, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Law enforcement professionals and volunteer dog handlers are teaming up to improve the way Flathead County’s canines are trained, deployed and funded through a new nonprofit organization.

The Flathead K-9 Foundation is awaiting formal approval of its application to form a 501(c)3 and begin raising funds, but the small group of dog handlers who came together to create the organization is already working to fulfill its mission, most recently at a training session at a local hotel late last month. There, two deputies from the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office (FCSO) along with a handful of volunteer handlers and their dogs, trained in everything from explosives detection to search and rescue functions, built puzzles for one another and built camaraderie in a way they believe can make a difference in the field.

“If we train together, when we deploy we can help each other,” Charles Pesola, a sheriff’s deputy and the handler of a narcotics dog named Misty, said. “If you can’t figure out the problem in the field and you’ve got somebody that trains with you, that knows you and knows your dog … you’ve got somebody that knows what’s going on and they can help with that.”

Pesola and another deputy, Matt Vander Ark, were assigned their K-9 companions in 2019, when newly elected Sheriff Brian Heino created the department’s K-9 program. Money to pay for the dogs and their training was fundraised through the Flathead Community Foundation, but when that organization merged with the Whitefish Community Foundation earlier this year, Pesola and his colleagues took the opportunity to branch out and form the new group. The Flathead K-9 Foundation wraps in a team of volunteers, primarily those who work with Flathead Search and Rescue, to bring everyone under one umbrella. Eventually, the goal is to provide funding for volunteers like Alex Moore, a local veterinarian, to cover the enormous costs of training and re-certifying their dogs.

“It’s great that Alex is passionate and gets personal enjoyment out of it, but let’s be real, your uncle or your child who’s disabled walks away, and his dog finds them or (another dog) finds them, that’s a pretty big deal,” Pesola said. “He shouldn’t have to pay $10,000 a year to go find your kid. We want to, and we’re going to.”

Moore and his dog, Hera, spent around 1,000 hours training to first become certified and still complete another 16 hours of training every month to maintain that certification. The pair has worked together for seven years, beginning when Moore was still a student, and now they’re part of a team of volunteers who donate their time to search and rescue missions throughout all manner of residential or rugged terrain in Northwest Montana. Moore said both the reward of a successful mission and the relationship built with his dog keep him involved in search and rescue even as his professional obligations have grown.

“Certainly being able to be successful with your partner and achieving a goal, whether that be finding a person, a missing child, or a deceased person, brings a lot of satisfaction,” Moore said. “But it’s really just the bond and the feeling of working side by side with a creature that I think completely understands what it’s doing.”

Pesola is grateful for the time he’s been able to work with Moore and other more experienced dog handlers through their trainings, like the one last month. He said the two deputies know each other’s tendencies so well that they’re hard to fool when they test each other (and their dogs), but the rest of the crew can still trick him and, in turn, help him and Misty grow. Law enforcement and volunteer teams typically don’t overlap in the field, but the potential to grow the pool of available K-9 teams — both volunteer and at FCSO — is part of what Pesola hopes the foundation can do down the road.

“We’ve cross-trained,” Pesola said. “So that when they run into problems that run into our work we can help them, and when we run into problems that are in their world they can help us.”

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