During a training session earlier in the week, Maggie was poised and focused as she stood next to Wentworth, waiting for that single command to set her into motion. Within a second of hearing the word, “search,” Maggie ran off at full speed. Her only goal: Find a missing person in her designated area, alive or dead.
Wentworth and his dog partner are training to become mission-ready members of the volunteer California Rescue Dog Association. Now 1½ years into their training, the Tracy team is right on target to meet its goal later this year.
Although it’s difficult training for Maggie, her objective is relatively simple: find the missing person, tell her human partner and get a reward. In Maggie’s case, it’s her favorite Kong toy that Wentworth carries in his backpack.
Wentworth’s motivation is nearly as simple. When asked why he’s involved in CARDA, he answered without hesitation: Sandra Cantu.
The 8-year-old Tracy girl disappeared from her family’s mobile home park in March 2009. It wasn’t until days after she was reported missing that her body was discovered in a Tracy irrigation pond, the victim of murder.
As a member of the city’s Community Emergency Response Team when the group was searching for the girl, Wentworth said, he had the chance to meet some CARDA volunteers.
“I thought, ‘This is pretty cool,’” he said. “Every time I’m tired and cold and everything isn’t going right (during training), that picture of Sandra walking away from her mobile home comes to my mind. I know I cannot quit.”
The girl’s image has helped Wentworth and Maggie move forward in their grueling 50 hours of monthly training. Although they work as a team, both human and canine have to meet their own requirements.
In Wentworth’s case, he must master tasks such as first-responder first aid, survival, tracking, map comprehension and radio communications. His partner has to pass tests of agility, obedience and problem solving, as well as specialized training that includes riding in a helicopter and swimming in different bodies of water. All of that, by the way, is performed in all weather conditions.
“In order to be involved, it takes a lot of dedication,” Wentworth said during a practice session at his rural Tracy home with CARDA newcomers Conrad Levoit and his 8-month-old Labrador, Tappy. “It’s not always easy. … It’s not a glamour job.”
For the first six months, the teammates are known as trainees. That’s followed by pre-apprentice training, in which they receive the help of two mission-ready handlers, and then they’re full-on apprentices. One of sponsors of the Tracy team is CARDA president Eric Sheets, who spoke highly of Wentworth and Maggie.
“She is a hardworking border collie and progressing well,” Sheets said. “Dick is a good student and very trainable and learning quickly. They should make a great team when they get through the process.”
Since each team is strictly volunteer, it’s their responsibility to cover all costs, including required equipment and transportation to all training and mission locations. Sheets said it’s not unusual to incur $5,000 in expenses in the first year.
Although the Tracy team is not ready for a mission yet, many of CARDA’s more than 100 mission teams have responded to statewide emergencies over the years. Their missions have included Southern California mudslides and wildland fires, as well as more than 200 annual missing-persons searches.
“Wherever people go missing, that’s where we go,” Wentworth said.
• In the Spotlight features members of the Tracy and Mountain House communities. Send nominations to email@example.com.
At a glance
• On May 14, the California Rescue Dog Association will be the beneficiary of a dog-wash fundraiser at Pet Express stores across the Bay Area, including shops in Livermore, Dublin and Pleasanton. The price of bath tokens, $15 each, will go to CARDA to offset costs paid by volunteer teams.
• For information: www.carda.org.