Sheila McKee and her husband, Redlands Fire Battalion Chief David Graves, sat beside their large yellow Labrador retriever, Guinness. Age had taken its toll on the dog, leaving him blind and deaf, but he knew the the couple was there as they gently stroked his head.
The 15-year old dog's indomitable spirit was apparent earlier that day, but the last few months had been challenging. The couple made the difficult decision to take Guinness to the veterinarian and have him euthanized on Friday.
The time had come to say goodbye.
“We were just there with him and wanted to honor him and make sure he knew we were there,” McKee said.
In the end, as he took his final breaths, the dog was surrounded by McKee, Graves and the veterinary staff who cared for him in his final years.
It was as peaceful and loving as a death could be for any dog-- but Guinness was not just any dog.
“There will never be another dog like him, he was really special,” said McKee.
In his prime, helped McKee search for disaster victims.
McKee, Guinness, Graves and his black Labrador, Coby, who died last year at the age of 16, were a part of Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 6, one of 28 teams in the nation deployed to emergency and disaster sites where they search for and rescue survivors.
Fifteen years ago, Sheila McKee received a phone call from a trainer with Canine Support Teams. The trainer knew McKee was in search of a new canine partner. The trainer had an 18-month-old yellow Labrador that was raised to be a service dog for disabled people, but had far too much energy for that job.
McKee, who had two previous search and rescue dogs, saw potential. The dog had boundless energy and with a few tosses of the ball, McKee saw qualities essential for a search and rescue dog to have.
McKee's instincts were right.
A year-and-a-half of training later, Guinness was certified as a Type 1 Disaster search dog. The dog became a member of the Urban Search and Rescue Team Task Force 6 and was trained to find survivors in collapsed buildings. McKee and Guinness were ready for disaster.
On Sept. 11, 2001, they were put to the test. Following the terrorist attack and collapse of the World Trade Center, Task Force 6 was activated and sent to search for survivors in the massive rubble pile. That night, McKee, Guinness, Graves, and Coby were on a plane bound for New York City where they spent the next ten days. No survivors were found, but McKee said they were able to search areas and made sure no one was there.
“He (Guinness) worked tirelessly for those ten days,” she said.
After returning from New York, Guinness was certified as a wilderness search dog. Guinness and McKee searched for survivors in the Waterman Canyon mudslides in 2003 and were called to find people lost in the wilderness throughout the county. While on the Urban Search and Rescue team, they were called to find victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Ernesto in 2006.
McKee recalled Guinness was in his prime when the major searches happened.
“We had a career when there was a lot of searches and we were ready and trained and available,” McKee said.
McKee recalled Guinness' tenacity during the searches.
“He would just search as hard as he could-- he never quit and we were able to provide closure for a number of different people on a number of searches and that was very gratifying,” she said.
Guinness was retired from search and rescue when he was 10. When he was not on training or on searches, Guinness was a family pet who enjoyed hiking, swimming and camping trips, and remained at McKee's side.
“If you got up and moved, he was right behind you,” McKee said. “He was extremely intelligent and very aware.”
But the thing Guinness seemed to enjoy the most was working. In his retirement, McKee used him to train other search and rescue dog handlers. McKee, still a member of Task Force 6, trains canine handlers. Graves, who retired from search and rescue following Coby's retirement, helps to take care of new dogs and support her in training.
“He was really good at that and he was a good teacher,” McKee said. “A lot of new search and rescue dog handlers and firefighters learned to how to handle their search dogs by working with Guinness.”
Margaret Stewart, a canine handler with Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1, based in Los Angeles, is one of more than a dozen canine handlers Guinness helped train. McKee trained Stewart's dog, Bo, a female yellow Laborador retriever.
“Guinness was the first dog I handled when I was learning,” Stewart said. “He loved to work and was always ready-- even as his body was starting to fail, his spirit was ready.”
Stewart said she wanted to have a dog with similar qualities
“I found that same intensity and drive in Bo that I saw in Guinness,” Stewart said. “She has the same kind of personality as him.”
Cathie Price, who trained alongside McKee and was a member of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department Search Dog Team, knew Guinness from the time Sheila began working with him and will remember the dog's personality.
“He was born to be a search dog-- he had the instinct and drive and that, coupled with Sheila's handling skills, made them the team that they were,” Price said. “He was driven to whatever was asked of him.”
Price said she will also remember how loved Guinness was by McKee and Graves.
“It was incedible how they cared for him,” Price said. “He had a wonderful retirement and a wonderful life.”