K9 Callie: The Best of the Best
Meet Callie, US Military’s Only Search and Rescue Dog
When disaster strikes, rescue crews need to find victims in the wreckage as soon as possible. Having a trained search and rescue (SAR) dog on the scene can mean the difference between life and death. Now, add in having a trained search and rescue dog that can literally skydive, rappel, or descend via helicopter into the scene and you have the rescue duo K9 Callie and her handler, Master Sgt. Rudy Parsons.
Callie, a 5-year-old Dutch shepherd, is the only SAR dog in the US Military and has been working with Parsons since she graduated from Penn Vet Working Dog Center in 2018 at 15 months old. Parsons is a pararescueman in the US Air Force with the Kentucky National Guard with 15 years of experience.
Parsons started thinking about the need for a search and rescue dog in the military and air force in 2015 when he was on deployment in Afghanistan. His team was called to recover 11 US souls lost in a cargo plane crash. They spent 36 hours finding everyone. “Towards the end,” says Parsons, “we were actually using our sense of smell to find the people just because it was a burning wreckage site.” All the while, Parsons was thinking “there’s got to be a better way.”
The recipe for success? Realizing Callie’s nose knows best. Parsons recognized he had to trust Callie regardless of his own assumptions. He discovered this for the first time in those first two weeks doing a search training drill at the center. Callie started barking at this tiny cabinet in the warehouse they were searching and Parsons couldn’t believe a person could possibly fit into such a small space. “She barked for 30 seconds or something, then out pops this tiny little intern that had been hiding in the cabinet and she starts playing tug of war with Callie. I was just blown away.”
Now, not only is Callie Parsons’ partner on missions in work, she’s also his companion. “She's a very quirky and wonderful dog to have in my life. She's definitely brought happiness.”
While Callie may be quirky, playful, and loving, make no mistake — she’s also a total bada$$ working dog. Callie is trained in wilderness SAR, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) equivalent certified, and avalanche SAR. Plus, with her special op air force duty, she’s also trained for all types of scenarios that might come up from jumping out of planes to being hoisted up Navy vessels.
Parsons and Callie train in some form everyday and they’re together just about 24/7. During admin days, the duo wake up, do a workout (yes, Callie has a workout program too), head to the office, do some admin, then work agility or obedience and do a practice search and rescue drill. During training days, the team does a shorter morning workout then goes to the day’s training. “Training can be anything from operations on helicopters and parachute operations, to working on boats or driving around on ATVs,” says Parsons.
And what happens when all this training gets put to the test?
Callie and Parsons bring their A-game. The team has been able to help in five different missions: two tornados, a flood, an avalanche in Alaska, and a wilderness search and rescue in the Red River Gorge. Even if Callie doesn’t find any live victims, they play a vital role by making searches more efficient and ensuring no one gets left behind.
Parsons says the most intense mission they’ve been on to date was during the Kentucky tornados in December 2021 when they were called to the destroyed Mayfield candle factory. “We were the first dogs on scene by quite a few hours,” says Parsons. “I remember when I got out, I was immediately blasted in the face with fragrant candles.” Along with the potent smells that Parsons worried would mess with Callie’s scent tracking, there was twisted metal, broken glass from glass candle holders, and other dangerous rubble.
All throughout this event, Callie worked tirelessly trying to sniff out any live victims. In the end, there were no live victims to find, but in two locations, Parsons noted Callie had a slight change of behavior. It wasn’t enough to be a detection, but he noted them on the map and the next day FEMA found the last remaining bodies in those two spots.
For the past five years, Callie has been the only search and rescue dog in the U.S. military, but Parsons is bringing fresh paws to the team now too — K9 Pits. Named after pararescueman William H Pitsenbarger (July 8, 1944 - April 11, 1966), Pits is a 14-month old Belgian Malinois in the training process to be the U.S. military’s second fully-fledged SAR dog. Pits has been training with Parsons and Callie since spring 2022 and is slowly building the skills and confidence to take on bigger training adventures like flying in planes and helicopters and being hoisted in a harness.
Follow the team on Instagram at @sar_pup!
Words by Johanna Flashman