Beyond our Edges: John Parsons and His Dog Bruce Help Families Find Closure
John Parsons, a Senior Project Manager at our Calgary office, has a unique side passion. When he’s not at work, he and his dog Bruce work as a highly specialized K9 team with the Canadian Canine Search Corps (CCSC), a non-profit dedicated to the search, rescue and recovery of missing people. John’s dog, a yellow lab named Bruce, is a certified live find and human remains detection (HRD or cadaver) dog. Enormous amounts of training and special testing are required to reach this level of certification. Much of the work the CCSC does is around finding human remains in the case of drowning victims, and John spoke with freelance writer, Cindy Hughes about the closure this provides families who can finally bring their loved one home, and about why he is so passionate about this work.
Cindy Hughes: Hi John, can you tell us a bit about the Canadian Canine Search Corps and what it’s all about?
John Parsons: Sure. A dog’s nose is ten thousand times more effective than what our nose is, so our team uses that amazing sense of smell to help find lost and missing people. CCSC is a non-government/non-profit organization (although people often think we get paid) and when called upon will assist the RCMP, local authorities (fire department, police) or a family trying to find a loved one. Our organization is based out of Calgary but have traveled to various provinces and even worked internationally.
We’re certified through IPWDA, the International Police Work Dog Association out of the United States. My dog Bruce was also certified under The International Search and Rescue Dog Organization (IRO), which is the worldwide representative for 122 national search and rescue dog organizations across 42 countries.
At the moment, we have eight dogs on our team, four are over the age of five, and we also have some puppies who will be tested and hopefully certified this year. On the human side our team is made up of two first responders, a nurse, a dental assistant and vet tech, the general manager of a welding company, a software engineer, and an environmental scientist, so we’re a very diverse group to say the least. My wife is a vet and she provides her veterinary services to the team as well.
I’d say we’re a young but very dedicated team with a good reputation and success rate. Recently we’ve done helicopter training, repelling and rope work. We learn about river currents, coordinate systems and we use a lot of math. Rain, snow or shine, we train three days a week, three hours per session all year round. The work we do is definitely not at the Hilton—on searches we’re often in tents and experience wilderness and wildlife and sometimes it feels like you’re in another world. Once in the Northwest Territories we had a pack of wolves nearby and had several local volunteers carrying rifles just in case. We’re often up at 5 a.m. and working until 10 p.m., then we repeat that again the next day. It’s not for the faint of heart!
CH: It sounds like quite a lot of time and effort is involved with this work. Giving up three nights a week and additional time during searches isn’t something everyone would do. On a personal level, why did you decide to do it?
JP: This is the first time I’ve done this kind of work but I’ve always wanted to get involved. I’ve been at it for about 6 years now, and it’s amazing to me what the closure of finding a loved one does for families. Seeing that weight lifted and though if the person is deceased there’s definitely grief as well, there’s relief. This work has provided me a mechanism to give back to the community and help people. It teaches you to appreciate other people’s heartaches, griefs and sorrows. It enables you to always keep perspective, it grounds you and brings you back to reality to appreciate your own life.
It’s also a really great way to stay fit and active. When I got Bruce from the breeder I knew I wanted “more of a dog” – a dog with more drive, but I also knew that a dog with that much initiative would get bored and start looking at my shoes, sofa, walls, etc. eventually if I didn’t direct the energy. This work is an excellent way for Bruce and I to get exercise and always be learning together.
CH: What is Bruce like? Does he have a knack for this?
JP: Bruce loves people and has a huge desire to do the work. He’s in great shape, he’s active and he loves to play chase. A lot of the search dogs are not great family pets but Bruce has a switch. When his collar or uniform is on, he clicks into work mode. But when he’s at home he chills out like any other normal family pet would. He’s very quiet and well behaved at home. He’s not a counter surfer, except that one time I accidentally gave him the ‘up’ command in the kitchen [laughs]. We have a strong bond and it’s really fun working with him and I take him almost everywhere. He’s a trusting little guy and his search pattern is very solid and methodical. We often use him as the first dog on the scene or as the “cleaner” at the end, to make sure no nooks or cranny has been overlooked. Bruce and I work as a team and we’re good at reading each other. Today he’s up to about 40 commands. At the end of the day a dog like Bruce is worth around $60,000, considering all the equipment and constant training. I don’t know if I’ll ever be so fortunate to have another dog like him.
CH: Can you talk about any of the searches you’ve been involved in?
JP: Sure, one that comes to mind is the search we did for the Gavin family. David Gavin was a 26-year-old from Ireland who moved to Vancouver with his girlfriend for work. He’d only been in Canada for a few months when he was on his way from Vancouver to Calgary for a Gaelic football championship. He and three of his teammates decided to make a stop at the Kinbasket Lake Resort not far from Revelstoke for a swim. He jumped off a bridge over Beaver Creek, and though he initially resurfaced and gave a wave he was okay, he then disappeared. David was very athletic, so this is just another example of how careful you need to be in waters you’re not accustomed to even if you’re a strong swimmer. At that time of year, the water levels were high and the reservoir was very dangerous to dive into.
The Gavin family were very distraught. The father was really strong throughout the search, but when the RCMP left, the situation was left to the family, and like most people the family had no idea how to run a search or what to do. When we came in, all the dog teams worked together in the search area and provided visual change of behaviours and alerts we call vectoring, and ultimately, we were able to locate David. Our initial search for David the depth of water was over 20 metres (60 feet) and Bruce’s first alert was over David. When he was recovered, it was initially a sad moment for the family, but you also see a dark cloud lifted; you see that the healing process begins. The family returned to Canada a year later and donated money to our team as a pay it forward. They were totally different people a year later—they had closure, their son’s remains were back home in Ireland, and they could now move forward with their lives. We used their donation to buy our search boat, which is proudly named the “David G”.
CH: For you, what’s the toughest part of the job, and what’s the best part?
JP: The biggest job we have is to make this work fun for the dogs. Maybe the hardest thing is to put my 12-year-old girl voice on to motivate the dogs, there are three fellows on our team and we all struggle with it [laughs]. The best part is being able to give back in the spirit of helping people, and having the common bond with the whole team, all of us are there because we care and want to help people.
Thanks John, what an amazing contribution!