Four-year-old Ra might not come with a GPS function, night vision goggles or the power of flight. But handler Anna Easthope, of Wanaka, believes Ra and dogs like her have a valuable role to play in land search and rescue operations.
Already a certified avalanche dog, Ra is now training to become a ''wilderness'' search dog - for use in all other situations.
There are very few such dogs in New Zealand and none certified in the Central Otago region. Only dogs certified as ''operational'' by the national LandSAR Search Dogs organisation can be used in search and rescue operations.
Ra's big moment comes in September when she is up for assessment. But there is no guarantee she will make the grade, even after six to eight hours of training each week. ''There is absolutely no certainty with any dog training that the dog will actually pass.''
Ms Easthope is the Wanaka LandSAR search dog co-ordinator, deciding which of the region's seven dogs and handlers are best suited for particular operations. She was a ''foot soldier'' in the search in the Pisa Range last week for missing Lowburn farmer Dave McLean but although weather conditions were perfect for using a wilderness dog, she left Ra at home because she is not yet certified. Ms Easthope says training a dog for search and rescue begins with finding the right pup. ''You do your best to make sure you are stacking the cards in your favour in terms of where you source the dog from.''
She chooses Labradors from a particular breeder who uses them for hunting and carries out a series of tests on the pups to see which have the right amount of ''drive''. But there is no knowing which will turn into good search dog. ''And there are plenty of dogs that don't, unfortunately.'' Ms Easthope says there are a ''whole raft'' of things that can ''trip you up'' while training dogs. Some dogs are unsuitable because they are ''headstrong'' and others because they are ''man-shy''. That, she says, is rarely a problem with Labradors. ''They tend to really like people, which is fantastic, and they've got some good features for training because they are so food-orientated and play-orientated.''
Asked about her experience of managing two dogs - Ra and her ''aunt'' Rua (12), who has just retired for avalanche work - Ms Easthope says: ''Oh, my gosh, it's such a lot of work. ''They have different strengths and weaknesses ... you can't just train two and do the same training for both.'' And operating two dogs in the field is tough on the handler. ''I would work one dog and when it tired I would rest that dog and just grab the other dog ... and so, essentially, the dogs wouldn't give me a rest. Ms Easthope's day jobs are at Cardrona Alpine Resort as a ski patroller in winter and in Wanaka as a retailer in summer. Her search dog work is voluntary.
Ra's food, insurance, clothing, tracking collar and some training expenses are paid for by LandSAR. ''It's all very nice me having the search dog,'' Ms Easthope says. ''But it's kind of like, man, there's a lot of people who have definitely put time into making it happen for me.''