The Story of Attila The Rescue/Search Dog

The Story of Attila The Rescue/Search Dog
By: Michelle Macullo

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She never complained about the weather, the hours or the pay. She never took a sick day. And unless her partner went on vacation, she never took a day off either. She worked like a dog because she was one. She was Parks Canada’s sweetheart and her name was Attila.

Attila was one of three female search and rescue dogs in Parks Canada’s history. Despite her extensive training and ability to live up to her name when called for, many who spent time with her occasionally forgot that she wasn’t a pet. She was a working dog and a good one at that.

Born on March 28, 1999 at Schooner Kennels in Nanoose, BC, Attila proved to be one of the most aggressive of her litter and showed early signs of what was to come. Reared by RCMP corporal Andrew Shepherd, Attila was paired with national park warden Mike Henderson. After a gruelling 85-day course at the RCMP Police Dog Training Centre in Innisfail, Alberta, Henderson and Attila were ready. Much to Henderson’s relief, the partnership was a natural fit, not only for the two of them, but for the entire public safety team. From January 2001 until May 2006, the duo was inseparable.

Attila was Mike’s first (working) dog, explains Marc Ledwidge, Parks Canada Visitor Safety Specialist. And within the first winter of working together, Mike was working like an experienced handler. It was easy to trust the two of them. They really complimented one another.

While trained as an RCMP search dog, the 34-kilogram German shepherd was also a certified avalanche dog. Between the two profiles, Attila was on 24/7. And so was Henderson.

No other civil servant works hours like that, Ledwidge says. The dog needs constant training. The only time Mike and the dog get a break is when he goes on holidays and the dog goes to a kennel.

When asked about the benefits of having a dog in Parks Canada’s mountain safety program, Ledwidge is quick to respond. It’s huge, replies Ledwidge. Dogs reduce the risk to responders, limit the number of people on site and give us a confidence level whether or not we can stop searching.

Attila responded to more than 400 calls during her career, including 72 avalanche operations. High- profile assignments included her first recovery at Fortress Mountain (Alberta) in 2002, 2003 Rogers Pass (Glacier National Park) avalanche that killed seven teens from Strathcona-Tweedsmuir school near Calgary, 2003 Lake Agnes (Banff National Park) Avalanche and what Henderson coins, the 2004 commercial morel mushroom-picking sting, in Kootenay National Park. One of the more entertaining calls included tracking a running naked man west of the Banff townsite, who Henderson describes as “having a moment.

Attila loved the chase. Rarely did she bark up the wrong tree.

Usually if I didn’t like the way a track was coming together or if something wasn’t working, it was because I’d done something wrong, Henderson offers.

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While known as one of the best rescue dogs in the country with superior travel skills, she didn’t come without faults. Henderson described Attila as, a notorious escape artist from kennels, eventually leading her to settle down in Canmore with Henderson’s family in a super-plush, outdoor kennel. Sometimes gawky on the job, she loved chasing snowballs and barked a lot. She punctured countless anoraks and was once run over by a jet boat.

Later in her career, lower back problems made travelling in snow painful and increasingly difficult. The decision was made to retire her in the hope she’d bounce back and enjoy the remainder of her life in comfort. But she wasn’t willing to let sleeping dogs lie not until she went out with a bang. Attila ended her career on a high note with a made-for-television style story that was anything but ordinary. Attila, Henderson and a new RCMP member hopped into a helicopter to search for an individual suspected of breaking into backcountry warden cabins in Banff National Park. Attila helped capture the suspect who was later deported back to his country of origin.

After fierce competition and calls from people across the country hoping to give Attila a forever home, Harold Fukuda, a retired RCMP member with a ranch and a soft-spot for animals, got the news he’d been hoping for. Attila had a good place to go to. And best of all, no introductions were needed. Fukuda and Attila had crossed paths professionally on several occasions while working in the Banff area. Everyone knew the right decision was made and that Attila was in good hands.

Henderson thought of Attila often but never saw her after she moved to the Fukuda ranch. I knew the Fukuda family was doing a great job with Attila, Henderson shares. It seemed best to avoid throwing any wrenches into the new bond.

Attila adjusted to life on the ranch well and was instrumental in finding an all sorts of things her new family didn’t even know were missing. On Aug 18, 2010, Attila went for a big run, had a nap and never woke up. Fukuda called Henderson with the news.

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Ironically, Atar (Henderson’s current dog) and I had just got back from an early morning search on Mt. Kidd, Henderson recalls. My family and I all had a cry, but we had to reload the truck and get ready for the next call. It sounds a bit emotionless, which isn’t the case. It’s just the expectations of any professional dog handler. She may have been a working dog, but Parks Canada staff loved her like family.

Thanks Attila.

Photo Caption: Attlia’s Handler Mike Henderson, Parks Canada.

Michelle Macullo
Communications Officer/Agente des communications
Banff National Park/Parc National Banff
(Tel/  403-762-1526)
(Fax/ 403-762-1583)