Parks Canada is mourning the death of one of its most distinguished workers – rescue dog Cazz.
The affable and admired rescue dog, who was retired in April 2019 following a full eight-year career in which he responded to more than 450 calls, was put down at the end of June to get him out of pain.
“He had an awesome run,” said park warden Mike Henderson, who was Cazz’s handler, noting pinch points in the dog’s spine made it extremely difficult for him to walk.
“He had a great career and we shared a nice year together since his retirement.”
Cazz came out of the RCMP’s dog breeding program in Innisfail in 2011 and worked with Henderson on law enforcement duties as well as the visitor safety program for the national parks.
On the visitor safety front, the Czech shepherd dog was involved in tracking and searching for missing or injured hikers in the mountains, including people who were suicidal, and returning them to safety or reuniting them with family and friends.
While he’s been to many false alarms and successful outcomes in dangerous avalanche situations, Cazz has also been involved in four fatal avalanche recoveries during his career.
“He’s had some really tough searches,” Henderson said, noting Cazz is looking for human scent coming up from beneath the snow and debris.
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The dog participated in high-risk searches, including a six-day search on Polar Circus – one of the most famous routes in the world of ice climbing – for Canadian Armed Forces member Sgt. Mark Salesse in 2015.
An avalanche buried the 44-year-old during a routine mountain climbing exercise in the area north of Lake Louise, and Cazz helped locate him buried beneath 2.7 metres of snow.
Henderson said some of these searches in dangerous conditions expanded the limits for dog searching in technical terrain.
“These are high and technical and interesting places to put dogs for sure,” he said.
“There’s a lot of trust and skill with the team and the helicopter pilot and the dog.”
While there are many successful stories, some end in tragedy.
In 2016, an 11-year-old Calgary boy fell into the Yoho River near Takkakaw Falls. With the help of Cazz, the young boy’s body was recovered in the Kicking Horse River four days later and 13 kilometres downstream from where he fell in.
“We hope for good outcomes, but that doesn’t always happen,” Henderson said.
On the law enforcement side of his job, Cazz discovered countless illegal camps, provided back-up to park wardens in the campgrounds, responded to wildlife poaching, located firearms and regularly patrolled the park boundaries during hunting season.
In fact, he was instrumental in the apprehension of a prolific antler poacher following a lengthy investigation, leading to wider knowledge of the poaching problems in the mountain national parks.
“Cazz’s backtrack put us in the right spot and that opened up that whole can of worms, and got things going in other parks too," he said, noting it led to a $2,500 court fine for the individual.
As a multi-tasking professional service dog, other agencies such as Alberta Parks, Alberta Fish and Wildlife, and RCMP in both Alberta and British Columbia, called on the services of Cazz and Henderson.
Cazz pulled more than $2 million in drugs off the streets over the course of his career, including the largest single MDMA dog seizure in Alberta at the time in 2016.
“Because he was also a drug dog, he pulled off some big hits on the roads,” Henderson said.
In 2015, Cazz successfully apprehended a suspect fleeing from the RCMP after a traffic stop in Banff National Park. Henderson and his dog were recognized with a CEO award for exemplary service.
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In that case, the team was called to help RCMP search for a man who smashed a stolen vehicle through the wildlife fence on the Trans-Canada Highway near Redearth Creek – and then bolted.
Police were quick to set up a containment area, and Cazz ended up working his nose over a six-kilometre track, criss-crossing creeks though the forest in -5 C temperatures, for more than 1.5 hours.
When they finally caught up with him, the man was hiding beneath a spruce tree on an ice shelf at a fairly dangerous section of the Bow River, with deep water and a bunch of sweepers.
They called him out – but then he ran across the ice shelf and bolted for the open river, trying to swim away in the Bow in November.
As the man fled, Cazz was let loose and got hold of the man by the leg in the shallows, at which point Henderson was able to wrestle him to the ground.
“He was really incredible that day,” Henderson recalled, noting Cazz ended up biting the man in the calf in what was one of only a few bites cases in Parks Canada’s history of working dogs.
Aside from the high profile rescues and police drug busts, Cazz also attended many avalanche awareness nights because of his nice, friendly personality.
“The rescues and helicopters and stuff are really cool, but there was a lot of day-to-day work,” Henderson said.
“He was a resource for the valley, and sort of protected the town a bit and I don’t think a lot of people really got that.”
Cazz was considered unique among professional working dogs. He was amicable and friendly around the office, but he could flip the switch and complete his work with incredible skill.
“He’s such a funny, super friendly guy who was very amicable and nice to work with and be around, but when it was time to work, it was time to work,” Henderson said.
“When it was time to go to the campground and be mean and barky in the truck, he could pull that off, but he could also hang out at an avalanche safety demonstration with people around him with no problems,” he added.
“To see Cazz work at that maximum potential of his capacity on complex issues and get the job done and make it better for everyone else – it’s something that’s way out there.”
Cazz was Henderson’s third working dog over the past 20 years.
First was Attila, a rescue dog who worked for five years until he passed away in 2006. Next was Atar, who retired in 2011, and was famous for tracking a naked man who was high on drugs through the forest when a grizzly bear was in the area.
“Cazz was definitely the closest dog I ever worked with in terms of just needing to be with me all the time – he just wanted to hang out,” Henderson said.
“When he was in the house towards the end, he always checked to see what kind of clothing I was wearing, so he knew what the day was going to bring.”
Marc Ledwidge, a former manager of Parks Canada’s rescue program, who retired in 2013, worked with Henderson and all three of his working dogs for many years.
Ledwidge said Henderson was highly motivated and dedicated, and the team placed a lot of trust in him and his dogs.
“Finding people in an avalanche situation is important, but the other thing is having confidence when the dog handler says, ‘well, I don’t think there’s anybody in here,’ ” Ledwidge said.
“Having a dog handler who can really trust his dog and read his dog, that’s a huge part of the safety factor for rescues teams … that trust and performance of the dog and the handler.”
Many people don’t realize that the work of a dog handler is not a 9-5 job – it’s all hours of the day and night.
Ledwidge would jokingly give Henderson a hard time when he’d show up late for the winter morning forecaster’s meeting if he wasn't always there by 8:30 a.m.
“Of course, he’s not late because he’s been working since six o’clock in the morning with the dog. You don’t just turn a high performance working dog on and off,” he said.
“Mike put in countless hours of his own time, and that kind of dedication, with three dogs, is really impressive,” he added.
“He was motivated from day one to the very last day with the dog and we all got a lot of value out of that.”
Ledwidge said Henderson, who is still about two years away retirement, has been a great mentor to Parks Canada’s new dog handler Logan Bennett, and his professional service dog Leroy.
“He was very instrumental in making that happen, turning the job over to Logan” he said.
To do the job as well as they did, Henderson and Cazz had a special relationship, and in the dog’s year of retirement before his death, they’d hang out and go on family trips.
“We’d hang out together, hike, go to the dog park, paddle board,” Henderson said.
“He really liked paddle boarding in retirement.”
Because of his demeanour, Cazz became part of Henderson’s family over the years with his wife Nadine Delorme, and twin daughters Neve and Marike.
“There were lots of tears and he’ll be missed,” Henderson said.
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