SAINSHAND, Mongolia -- It's not often in life that someone can pinpoint an exact moment when his or her life instantly changed. For Melissa Becker, that moment came during an everyday ritual and helped foster her consecutive journeys back to Mongolia.
"Went to get a cup of coffee and came back with a puppy," Becker assertively recalled, linking a flash from more than 16 years ago to her present-day trip to Sainshand with co-volunteers Debra Gillis and Dolly Lefever. "I know it sounds simple but when I adopted this dog, it altered my life in a profound way."
It was the coffee barista at her local coffee shack, whose parents were desperate to rehome a puppy after just one day. Becker instantly said yes, adopting the dog and beginning a long excursion into training and developing her desire into working with search and rescue dogs.
As part of a trio of volunteer canine trainers with the Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs (ASARD), Becker helped train dog handlers with the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) during the disaster response and exchange exercise 'Gobi Wolf 19' from Sept. 9-21. They are key subject matter experts, providing years of insight and passion in the field of canine rescue.
Gobi Wolf 19 is hosted by NEMA and the Mongolian Armed Forces and is part of the U.S. Army Pacific's humanitarian assistance and disaster relief "Pacific Resilience" series. With an ongoing relationship between Mongolia and Alaska through the National Guard's State Partnership Program, many civilian and volunteer organizations, like ASARD, played an immense role in this year's training.
For Debra Gillis, the trip to Mongolia is her first (other than Canada) out of the United States but she instantly found a connection with the German Shepard dogs primarily utilized by the NEMA and Sainshand Police Department.
"I love the dog and love the breed," she said, after spending a long but productive day with half a dozen dogs on obstacle courses while working directly with their NEMA trainers.
Initially, Gillis started with training dogs for sport competition but later with her dog, Sterling began to work in search and rescue with ASARD in 2001. After his untimely death, she began training her next dog, Ruger and completed more than 100 missions prior to his passing in 2016.
Now Gillis is training Gauge, the fourth in a lineage of German Shepards. Like all dog owners and handlers, a special bond between makes each dog's characteristics and skills unique, especially when they are trained to become rescue animals.
"I love the dog training; each dog has a different personality and using those strengths and weakness while bringing out what's best from each dog is what I find the most interesting," Gillis said.
Depending on the season, she will train handlers and their dogs in different skills. In the spring and fall, it is often tracking, in the winter it is "nose work" when relocating indoors.
"I train their handlers on how to train their dogs," she said, stressing the importance of the one-on-one relationship and skills formed during training.
"I'll sometimes get frustrated with the lack of dog trainers in Search and Rescue because that's where it all begins -- where you discover what each particular dog is really good at -- not every dog can be a search and rescue dog," she said.
That sentiment of understanding, not only with the individual dog but what drives someone to diligently work in search and rescue, was reiterated by Lefever, describing the transition from mountain climbing and mountain rescue and now to working with rescue dogs.
"I decided to take a break from mountain climbing in the late 1990's to start working with rescue dogs," Lefever said, modestly acknowledging the transition from one form of training and lifesaving work to another. That 'break' came after a remarkable achievement in the mid-1990's.
On May 11, 1993, Lefever successfully climbed the 29,029-foot peak of Mount Everest, on her way to being the first American woman ever to complete climbs of all the tallest peaks on each of the seven continents by 1994. They included Mount Denali (North America), Aconcagua (South America), Kilimanjaro (Africa), Elbrus (Europe), Vinson (Antarctica), Koscuiszko (Australia) and Mount Everest (Asia).
But with the same quiet determination she used to pursue those feats, Lefever diligently works with rescue dogs now.
"I joined ASARD in the early 2000's and traveled other parts of the U.S. to do more training," she said, relating her awareness from years of traveling around the world during her mountain climbing conquest. "I had this fear of earthquakes and I knew that to get a FEMA out to an (earthquake) site would take quite a long time and cost many lives."
Though her current dog, Shadow, a Mini Austrian Shepard, did not pass the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) test, he is trained to a level 2 search and rescue dog and has been part of nearly 25 missions.
The trip to Mongolia is the second year in a row for Becker to work with NEMA and rescue dogs during the Gobi Wolf exercises, but shortly before leaving Alaska, she lost her dog Tatonka. It wasn't far from her mind when echoing many of the connections they share with being an owner and conveying the training to their Mongolian counterparts.
"That strong tie with a dog, how far you can go, how much you can do ... it's incredible," Becker said.
In some ways, the two weeks of training in Mongolia was a bit of a welcome distraction and a clear chance to see how much of the training from the previous year had transpired with the NEMA dog handlers.
"I see a huge difference because I was lucky enough to be here last year and see how the program is running now," she said. "They (NEMA) are getting away from the Soviet-style of sharp and harsh correction to the dogs (if they do something bad), and most of the students here just completed six months of training in Ulaanbaatar."
Becker was involved with some of the training in 2018 in Ulaanbaatar and noticed the difference when she arrived back in Mongolia this year.
"I can tell that they have been trained differently," she said. "But just in the first week of training this year, working with Jake and his handler here (in Sainshand) we saw noticeable changes -- you just get so much more out of a positive relationship with the animal."
Those changes were noteworthy even for Gillis after the first five days for focused and compassionate training.
"All the teams, all the handlers have excellent relationships with the dogs," Gillis said, highlighting the motivation how each team responded to the training. "The dogs are trying so hard to communicate with that handler and it shows that relationship they had coming in and they are putting everything together in that overall big picture."
As the week of training went on, the three trainers also observed two import aspects with the NEMA dog handlers; the first being a relaxed confidence with their dogs and the second being a camaraderie between the trainers as a whole.
"I am seeing the guys working together, supporting each other," said Lefever, noting the change. "It didn't show right at the beginning but it is defiantly there now and they are willing to try new training ideas with the dogs."
With two translators helping the Alaska handlers work with their Mongolian counterparts throughout the exercise, there was also a shared kinship and universal language transpiring with the group. After the in-classroom work ended, the NEMA members would often stay asking additional questions of their three American trainers.
"We're here to support them, we don't always share the same view but we try and get to the same point," said Gillis. "Their love for the dogs, they have the same dedication and I'm willing to bend over backwards to support that!"
One of the noticeable alterations Becker pointed out from last year's training and reiterated by Gillis and Lefever was the change and pitch in the reward voice used by the NEMA dog handlers.
"I could start to hear how some of them raised the octave in their voice, trying to get it higher when acknowledging the dog's correct response," said Gillis.
Laughing to that response, Becker was quick to say how this began in the previous year's training and has carried over to this group too.
"We talked about that last year, that 'Silly High Voice,' and how it was different from how they might normally verbally reward their dogs," said Becker. "The handlers see how receptive the dogs are to that sound and are starting to use it."
Outside of the U.S., dogs in many countries are seen less as pets and used more as working animals. Lefever noted how the earthquake in Nepal in 2015 changed that perception when people could see how dogs could be so effective in collapsed structure recovery.
"The attitude change is remarkable, to see how these guys are using these dogs as a respectable tool -- it is just incredible," she said.
For their part in Gobi Wolf 19, all three traveled to Mongolia as unpaid volunteers much like the time and dedication they offer back home in their native state of Alaska. But with the chance to make such an enormous impact with their partners in Mongolia: Becker, Gillis and Lefever all said it was an experience they would never forget.
"There was a moment during the training when we were working at one of the training sites, and this wonderful breeze, almost like a constant current, came through the building. The dogs, with all of their training, just followed it one after another," Gillis said, capturing the essence to their calling and volunteer assignment in Mongolia. "We all looked at each other (with the same satisfaction) for how well the dogs were responding. It was just beautiful."