Nevada County Search and Rescue team rescue couple missing for eight days | TheUnion.com
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Nevada County Search and Rescue team rescue couple missing for eight days

Less than a week after a photojournalist snapped his picture, Groot is a bona fide Twitter star.

The photogenic golden retriever was with handler Rich Cassens at a Saturday Marin County press conference after the pair found a couple in their 70s who had been missing for eight days. There were more than a dozen searchers — and at least one other K-9 — in the shot, but only Groot, with a wide doggie grin, was looking directly at the camera.

“He’s a clown,” laughed Cassens. “Goldens are just goofballs … He’s a fun dog.”

The next day, the photo was posted to the We Rate Dogs Twitter account, and has racked up nearly 145,000 likes. The media attention soon escalated, with outlets all across the Bay Area scrambling to interview Cassens about working with Groot to rescue Ian Irwin and Carol Kiparsky.

“I just want to train my dogs,” said a bemused Cassens, a longtime volunteer with Nevada County Sheriff’s Search & Rescue. But, he acknowledged, the swirl of attention has been a good way to shine attention on the work of search and rescue teams.

“It’s very important to have these resources available,” Cassens said. “To be able to pull the orange handle, as it were, and get 40 searchers out there. All of my colleagues, canine team members or ground-pounders, they all do an amazing thing. I feel fortunate I’ve been able to work with them.”

Nevada County Sheriff’s Search & Rescue currently has 123 members who were called out on 59 missions last year, 16 of which were mutual aid requests from other counties, said Sgt. Ray Kress.

“We have a very robust and accomplished team for the size of our jurisdiction,” said Kress, who had nothing but praise for 9-year team veteran Cassens. “We are immensely proud of his dedication and his work.”

Cassens is well-known in Nevada County, not just for his involvement with search and rescue but also for his five years in animal control, initially for Grass Valley and then with Nevada County. He left about a year ago to launch a private dog training business, Essential K9 Training.

“There were a lot of fun cases,” he said. “But my passion is working with dogs.”

His primary business involves obedience training, but a growing focus on “nose work” — which he describes as a game for dogs that has exploded in popularity — fits right into his search and rescue training.

The dog brain is “hard-wired” to its nose, Cassens said, adding that dogs have hundreds of millions of scent receptors.

“That’s how they see the world,” he said.

Cassens uses birch, anise and clove oil on Q-tips for nose work, teaching them to search for a particular scent by associating the find with a reward such as food or a toy.

“It’s like hide-and-seek,” he said. “Once they get that scent, it’s hard to hide from them.”

A difficult search with a golden payoff

Cassens has worked with Nevada County’s search and rescue team for almost nine years, several of those as canine team leader. He also volunteers with El Dorado County’s search and rescue team and the California Rescue Dog Association.

Cassens grew up with goldens, he said, adding, “I just love the breed. They’re intelligent, they’re easy to train. They’re a working breed, they have the strength and stamina. And they’re a good family dog.”

Sunny, now 9, was the first golden Cassens worked with as a search dog. Groot came to the Cassens household at 8 weeks and is 3 now. Groot passed his cadaver certification in December and live find certification on Feb. 1, less than a month before the call-out to Marin County.

Cassens said it is hard to explain just how dense the vegetation was in the drainage area he had been assigned to search with Quincy Webster, an 18-year-old volunteer with Marin County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team.

“It was horrendous,” he said, describing stands of 6-foot-high poison oak. “It was probably one of the top five worst areas I’ve ever searched.”

Cassens said it became easy to see how the missing couple, avid hikers who were familiar with the area, had gone astray after what they thought was a quick jaunt to the beach to watch the sun set on Valentine’s Day.

“It got dark quick and they lost the trail,” he said. “You make one bad decision and then the problems compound.”

Cassens said his team had been asked to cover the mile-long drainage starting at the beach. They began working their way up and had spent a good hour to cover 1,000 feet,

“It was so dense,” he said. “We would go up a deer trail as far as we could and then bush-whack through until we found another one.”

Because there was not much wind and it was blowing from different directions, Cassens said, Groot was not having any luck catching the couple’s scent.

“They heard us talking and yelled out,” he said, adding they initially thought it was another search team, or maybe someone else who had gotten lost.

At that point, seven days into the search, the teams expected to find the couple deceased, Cassens said.

“I asked, ‘Who are you,’ and they said ‘Ian and Carol,’” he said. “We just looked at each other like, this is not happening.”

The couple were just a few hundred feet away — but it took Cassens and Webster at least five minutes to reach them. Then the rescuers had a hard time getting word out the two were alive. Eventually, through a makeshift relay system, the good news was delivered and the pair — exhausted and slightly hypothermic but coherent — was airlifted to a nearby hospital.

“It was amazing, to be able to find them.” Cassens said. “It was a huge team effort. … We were just at the right place at the right time. You just never know. One thing I’ve learned is that you don’t give up hope.”

To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, email lizk@theunion.com or call 530-477-4236.


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