One of Parks Canada’s most loyal employees is calling it quits. Atar, the search and rescue dog, is retiring at the end of this month after a storied five-year career with the federal agency.
The German shepherd has sustained several injuries such as torn ligaments over the years and his handler, warden Mike Henderson, wants to retire him before he hurts himself more or loses his ability to do the job.
Atar, 7, has successfully tracked missing people, has a strong nose for narcotics, has searched for bodies buried beneath avalanche debris and has tracked down wildlife poachers.
“He’s such a good working dog and a really nice dog to work with. His tracking ability and searching ability is really strong and he always steps up to the plate,” said Henderson.
“He’s just starting to show a few injuries and we’re going to retire him out before he’s gets too banged up.”
In one of his more impressive moments during his first year on the job, for 16 hours he backtracked a hunter who had poached a bighorn sheep.
“The trail was really cold and he backtracked these guys for 16 hours and found all of the shell casings for us,” said Henderson.
Atar has also found himself in some curious situations.
He successfully led wardens to a man who had spent the night wandering alone naked in the woods near Sundance Canyon, reportedly strung out on drugs.
“(A resource conservation officer) backed us up with a shotgun because of grizzly bears in the area,” said Henderson. “This guy stayed out all night, and when we found him, we took him to hospital.”
There have also been more tenuous moments.
Atar was one of five dogs searching for bodies in a major avalanche disaster near Revelstoke, B.C., in March of last year.
A wall of snow crashed down on hundreds of spectators at an annual event known as the “Big Iron Shootout”. Two people were killed in that slide on Boulder Mountain during a period of extreme hazard.
“It was such a big event,” said Henderson. “We sent a full complement to help. There were five dogs on site, including Atar, just clearing the area and working through a complicated search.”
Atar has also found himself in lofty and hazardous places, often requiring a bumpy helicopter ride to get there.
He’s been involved in two fatal avalanche recoveries, including one on Jan. 15 this year involving two Calgary brothers killed in a slide at Burstall Pass in Kananaskis Country.
The other was at Canmore’s Three Sisters in January 2009, when a Calgary hiker was caught in an avalanche and killed.
That search was called off due to darkness, but resumed early the next morning. Atar was flown in by helicopter and found the body buried beneath half a metre of snow.
“That was a pretty sporty one and he did really well,” said Henderson. “It was a scary place to be and big objective hazard, and he found the guy within five minutes.”
Henderson will miss Atar, but knows he’s going to a good home. He’ll spend the rest of his days with Patti and Brian Spreadbury in Waterton Lakes National Park.
“Sure, I’ll miss him. We’re counting on each other to stay safe, especially when we’re going into scary places,” said Henderson.
“We’re training hard and working hard and a lot of our time together is spent in situations with elevated risk and in places where you need to get there in a hurry.”
Atar’s replacement is currently in Banff with RCMP members. His name is Barter, but he still has to pass all of his training tests.
“He’s part of the RCMP police dog training centre breeding program (in Innisfail). He’s got Czech bloodlines, he’s almost two and he’s working out quite well,” said Henderson.
“He’ll be a nice fit with Parks Canada if he validates,” Henderson said, adding he’ll go to Innisfail with Barter in May.