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Parks Canada's new dog handler lands 'astronaut job'

“I used to joke that it was an astronaut job because there’s literally more astronauts in Canada than this position."

BANFF – From surfer to ski patroller to Parks Canada’s search and rescue dog handler.

Logan Bennett’s path to becoming a professional dog handler over the past decade has not been an easy one, but now, with his dog Leroy, he’s got what he calls the “astronaut job.”

“I used to joke that it was an astronaut job because there’s literally more astronauts in Canada than this position,” said Bennett, noting there’s only one dog handler remaining in Canada’s national park system. 

“There was no way I was going to get this job, literally no way. I still think there’s no way I got it because there’s so many good awesome people who went for this.”

Bennett replaces park warden Mike Henderson as Parks Canada’s dog handler in Banff National Park.

Henderson retired his dog Cazz in April 2019 due to injury. Cazz, a Czech shepherd who responded to more than 450 calls over his eight-year career, passed away earlier this summer.

Henderson said Parks Canada is very fortunate to have Bennett on board. 

“He comes to the Parks Canada K9 program as an experienced avalanche professional, and has sharp law enforcement skills from his time working as a conservation officer,” he said.

“We are excited for Logan and Leroy, and anticipate the duo will have an exciting future in this unique and important role serving Banff National Park.”

Bennett, who was born and raised in New Zealand, came to North America on a ski patrol exchange program in 2000, working initially as a ski patroller at Keystone Resort in Colorado before landing at Banff’s Sunshine Village the following winter.

“I grew up surfing, so it was a bit weird,” he said. 

“But dad used to take us – myself and my sister – up to Mount Ruapehu as little kids.”

It was on one of those trips, in 1992, that 12-year-old Bennett met ski patroller Phil Couch, who had an avalanche rescue dog.

“I rode the T-bar with him and I remember talking to him and wondering 'how can I get that kind of job,' ” he said.

After 14 back-to-back winters between New Zealand and North America, Bennett rose through the ranks at Sunshine. He ran the ski patrol team for a while before swapping over to the snow safety side of the business, eventually becoming assistant supervisor.

Bennett started to actively look for his own avalanche dog to be part of Sunshine’s snow safety team around 2010.

“I decided I was going to go for it and made an application to the RCMP for their cast-offs – the dogs that don’t make it for whatever reason – maybe aggression, maybe tracking,” he said.

“I ended up getting Cai – a giant meathead and just such a nerd – and Cai and I worked really hard. It took two-and-a-half years to go for validation, and when we went to the validation course, it didn’t go very well.”

But his instructors Will Devlin and Jennifer Proctor had faith in Bennett.

“It was like a week of disaster; it was the hardest thing I had ever done,” he said.

“My instructors said, ‘we think you’re working really hard and we think you’re doing great, but the dog’s obviously not doing very well, so we’re going to give you three months to see if you can right this ship.’ ”

At that point, Bennett got in touch with Henderson, Parks Canada’s experienced dog handler, for help and guidance. Over 20 years, Henderson worked with three dogs – Attila, Atar and Cazz.

“I talked to Hendo about what was happening – because Hendo had been checking on us a lot with Cai – and we stripped the dog back straight all the way to the beginning,” said Bennett. “For three months, I just hammered it as hard as I could.” 

Impressed with the progress made by the up-and-coming dog handler, Henderson and Jasper National Park’s dog handler at the time, warden Darian Sillence, indicated they believed he and Cai were ready.

It wasn’t long before the handler and dog duo passed the validation course. However, within two months Cai had a severe injury –  elbow dysplaysia – and had to be retired.

“It was pretty advanced for a dog of such a young age, so we had to wash him out,” said Bennett.

Bennett’s second dog, Ferra, had an easier run getting through the training program. After three or four years working with the young female German shepherd, Bennett began to hear whispers that Henderson might be retiring Cazz.

“Once I started hearing that Cazz was retiring, I thought ‘oh my gosh, I might get a chance to apply,' ” he said.

Knowing he needed a broader skill set, Bennett secured a seasonal job with Alberta Parks as a provincial conservation officer, working out of the Pincher Creek area.

When the long-awaited competition for Parks Canada’s K9 position came out, he was ready to apply.

“When the competition came out, it said you had to have a degree or diploma in natural sciences accredited in a university,” said Bennett.

As luck would have it, Bennett studied geology at Canterbury University in Christchurch, New Zealand when he was 18 or 19 – but he dropped out to pursue his love of skiing – and didn’t have enough credits. 

Bennett ended up doing the online studies needed to meet the qualifications of Parks Canada dog handler job through Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops.

“I talked to someone there and she said I had to finish the requisite diploma,” he said.

“I only had six weeks to do it, so I said, ‘is it possible to do this’? and she said ‘not really, because you have to do a course a week. I said ‘OK.' ”

As he worked as a conservation officer out of Pincher Creek, and added several hours of study a day on top of that, his wife Christy Bennett was in Canmore with their baby, Eleanor, who is now four years old.

At the same time, he was given the tragic news that his sister Carmen, who was married with two children, had been involved in a biking accident in London, England, and had died five days later in hospital.

“It was a crazy time,” said Bennett. “But I had so much support from so many people and we got through.”

Approximately 1,300 people applied for the general warden position, but Bennett does not know how many went after the dog handler job.

In the end, it came down to Bennett and one of his friends, a resource conservation officer with Parks Canada.

“We were both like ‘whoever wins is good.’ He’s awesome and he’s an excellent dog handler,” he said.

“We were calling each other every day, saying’ have you heard?’ And I just happened to get that phone call and was told ‘I am happy to tell you, you have the job.’ ”

With that, Bennett was off for an intensive three months of training to become a national warden in January 2018 and went through RCMP Depot.

After finishing his law enforcement training, he worked with Henderson in preparation for the dog handling part part of the job.

From the RCMP kennels, Bennett got a German shepherd called Knox, his first dog with Parks Canada.

“He was really great, but he just didn’t track,” he said. “We persevered with the dog for a while and then it just didn’t work out, so we had to wash out Knox.”

Next was Kitt.

“He had some deficiencies and that meant as a really young handler, I wasn’t good enough to keep him going,” he said.

“I got really close to finishing the course with Kitt, but it was just not quite there.”

A decision was made to find Bennett yet another dog – Leroy, a two-year-old German shepherd.

“He’s just a ball of energy and nerd-ness; he’s such a great dog,” said Bennett.

“Leroy and I managed to get through the whole thing. He’s an excellent, excellent tracker and that’s what we need, and the searching profile gets better and better every day.”

Bennett was officially on the ground with Leroy in November, 2019.

On the law enforcement side, Bennett and the dog have tracked poachers and people ignoring and entering closed areas, including to fish or hike.

From a public safety perspective, the duo has found hikers lost in the wilderness, and more recently, was involved in in the tireless search for a missing man presumed drowned in the North Saskatchewan River.

While the search for a 23-year-old man from India has been scaled back after he fell into the river on July 25. His body was recovered near Abraham Lake on Sunday (Sept. 20). 

“We’ve been up there several times, and Leroy and I have been doing shoreline searching,” said Bennett. “Hopefully, we can find him.”

While Leroy is qualified as an avalanche search and rescue dog, he has not had to do a live search of someone buried yet.

Bennett, however, has been at avalanche scenes with two of his previous dogs before his time with Parks Canada.

“We’ve had some close calls,” he said. “There was one burial, but they were out already when we got there.”

Bennett acknowledges his new position is no 9-5 job, saying he couldn’t do it without the support of his wife Christy, who is a teacher at Lawrence Grassi Middle School in Canmore.

“People should know that I didn’t get here by myself,” he said. 

To make matters easier, both Christy and his daughter get on well with Leroy.

“Luckily Eli has never grown up without a big massive dog in her life,” he said. 

And after nine months on the ground working with Leroy and the Parks Canada team, Bennett said it’s still the job of a lifetime.

“What can’t you love about this job?”


About the Author: Cathy Ellis

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