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March 30, 2014

DOGGED DETERMINATION: Woman, husband turn hardship into help with search and rescue dog

SELLERSBURG — Paula Lomax was hurting. She was recovering from serious back surgery which nearly left her unable to walk.

At the same time, her family’s dog had died. And, to add insult to injury, deadly tornadoes ripped through Clark County on March 2, 2012, as Lomax was trying to get back on her feet.

But the Sellersburg resident isn’t one to sit around and lick her wounds. She decided to get involved in the March2Recovery movement that helped displaced tornado victims.

She didn’t stop there.

“For four years, I had a lot of trouble with my legs,” said Lomax, who suffered from a bone marrow infection. “When I got my legs back, I just decided I wanted to give back in some way. I wanted to challenge myself.”

So, with the support of her husband Joe, Lomax purchased a border collie and decided to turn him into a search and rescue dog. For two years, she poured her time, energy and money into her dog Louie, starting with obedience training and now rescue training. In May, Louie will take a certification test to make it official.

“I was behind her 100 percent,” said her husband. “We made the decision to do something like this together. We have always had dogs.”

Louie is not the only family member going through training. Lomax and her husband have also completed numerous classes to become certified. It’s a long process — online exams, outdoor training, learning first aid, CPR and taking first responder search and rescue classes, navigation classes, and the two have their ham radio license.

“It’s very time consuming,” she said.

The two are members of the Jefferson County [Ky.] Search Dog Association and have gone out on several missions with the group, without Louie since he is not yet certified. The group can be called out around the clock for lost hikers, dementia patients or search for missing children with autism. They also help find suicide victims who may be in a field or wooded area. The group covers a 100-mile radius, and is made up of all volunteers. The members receive no money, only the joy of helping others and giving back to the community.

“I thought you just trained your dog. I hadn’t thought about the rescue part of search and rescue,” Lomax said. “But in doing this we have met some great people who are so dedicated.”

She spends many weekends with her husband and dog at Camp Atterbury, near Edinburgh, going through an Indiana Homeland Security search and rescue program.

Indiana is one of a few states with such a program. Joe recently purchased an Australian shepherd named Angus. He has just begun his obedience training course at PetSmart.

“After working with March2Recovery I wanted to stay involved in working with disasters,” she said. “It sparked my interest. We have two older kids, so this is our empty-nest project.”

The couple “work” their dogs usually twice a week, and once on the weekend. On Wednesday, Louie was working on his skills at the Pepper Upper Club off Ind. 60 in Clark County. As her husband hid in the woods, on Paula’s command, Louie ran off to find Joe. Once he finds the person, he returns to Paula and leads her to the individual. Some search dogs bark after finding their victim, but not Louie. He is not a bark alert dog.

How does she reward Louie after he finds the missing person? She tosses a tennis ball for him to fetch. He also receives a treat or two.

“He is a family pet, but he has a high drive,” Lomax said of Louie. “We work on obedience every day. He has never not solved a problem. Border collies don’t lay around and cuddle all day.”

“His parents were working dogs, so he likes to work,” Joe said.

Lomax said search dogs and their handlers are in high demand. She said in the past week, dogs have been used to find victims following the mud slide in Washington.

In May Louie’s test will be to find up to three individuals, over 60 acres, in one hour. The test is administered by the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.

Once Lomax puts the orange vest on Louie, he knows it’s time to work. He wears a bell on the vest so she can hear him since “we work apart from each other.”

Once a week, she takes Louie to her day job at the YMCA in New Albany. While at work, she goes through command training with Louie. She said she can tell him to stay, and he won’t leave her office for hours until she returns with another command.

“When I decided I wanted a search dog, I wanted to get a dog that would give me the best opportunity,” she said. “Border collies are one of the smartest breeds. He is a pretty neat dog.”

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David Bennett, Jeffersonville, is pictured at Riverview Village in Clarksville where he is undergoing rehabilitation after losing his leg due to diabetic complications. Bennett is a 1981 New Albany High School graduate, and was on the 1980 basketball team that finished the season with a 27-1 record.

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