The ultimate recognition for duty

Search and rescue dog dies, honored in ceremony

CHUCK MELVIN stands behind Axel earlier this year. Axel died last week and was recognized at the National Search and Rescue Conference for his service. Enlargephoto

SHANNON LIVICK/STAR

CHUCK MELVIN stands behind Axel earlier this year. Axel died last week and was recognized at the National Search and Rescue Conference for his service.

A silver dog bowl sat empty and alone at the National Search and Rescue Conference last week in Lake Tahoe. Beside it were empty dinner place settings of search and rescue personnel who had lost their lives in the line of duty.

It was an annual tradition at the National Search and Rescue Conference in honor of all those that do search and rescue who had lost their lives.

The dog bowl was added for the first time this year, in honor of Axel.

Axel, the black German shepherd owned by Chuck Melvin, founder of the Dolores K-9 Search and Rescue Team, died June 8 after his hind leg was shattered from a kick by a horse.

He was a well-known dog in the community and was responsible for finding numerous people over the years.

“It’s the very first time in history they included dogs in the memorial,” Melvin said.

Also honored at the event was Luke, the search and rescue dog owned by Kimberly R. Kelly, a member of the Dolores K-9 Search and Rescue Team who lives in California.

Kelly’s dog died in January.

It has been a tough year for the local K-9 Search and Rescue Team because both Luke and Axel were the senior dogs on the team.

“Axel was a phenomenal, fantastic dog,” Kelly said. “There are some dogs that are very skilled but don’t adapt well to their environment. Axel was rare because he could do both. He was a good problem solver.”

Kelly was at the conference and attended the memorial.

Axel was 9 years old and participated in hundreds of searches, including one for a missing journalist in Costa Rica. He also traveled to local schools numerous times and when Melvin was still a science teacher at Dolores High School would visit the classroom every Friday.

“It’s amazing the emails I’ve got,” Melvin said. “He touched a lot of people.”

But Melvin said that search and rescue dogs often don’t live long because they are large dogs and because they work so hard.

“He lived a year longer than any of my other shepherds I kept,” Melvin said.

Kelly recalls when Axel found lost snowboarders.

The snowboarders went missing over the winter in an avalanche-type situation and still hadn’t been found by April. When the K-9 teams were sent out, they asked that a helicopter push the winds near the bottom of the mountain toward the top of the ridge, where Axel was.

“By pushing the winds, Axel gave a clear alert and then Axel found the bodies,” Kelly said.

Kelly said it is difficult to replace a well-trained dog, but without a well-trained handler, a well-trained dog is useless.

“They are a tool,” Kelly said. “A tool that is not used properly, does not yield results.”

Axel just happened to be one of the best and was also loved by many in the community.

Axel sniffs the Flight For Life helicopter as Chuck Melvin holds on to his leash Saturday during a training with the Dolores Fire Department and the K-9 Search and Rescue team. Enlargephoto

Journal/Sam Green file

Axel sniffs the Flight For Life helicopter as Chuck Melvin holds on to his leash Saturday during a training with the Dolores Fire Department and the K-9 Search and Rescue team.