Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Photo By Michael Alexander
Chantal Gourlay, right, trains dogs in search and rescue tactics. Here she squats with a four-year-old German Shepherd name Jonah, who is trained to find deceased and missing persons. Gourlay chairs the foreign language department at Blessed Trinity High School, Roswell.


BT Teacher Finds Unique Way To Blend Hobby, Helping

By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published May 28, 2009

Chantal Gourlay always had a love for animals. In 2004 when she got her first German shepherd puppy, which demonstrated a noticeable amount of energy, she wondered if she could find a way to use that youthful stamina for a purpose.

First she thought about prepping the dog for competition, considering whether to train Jonah for agility performances. Then she learned of a way to mesh her love of animals and nature with her desire to help her local community: K9 search and rescue.

In her “real” job by day, Gourlay serves as the foreign language department chair at Blessed Trinity High School, Roswell. But outside of her work schedule, day or night, Gourlay is willing to respond to a call requesting her assistance.

She began training in early 2005, and her passion for teaching and learning helped the process along. She started with some friends who were volunteers and then decided to explore her growing interest with a few seminars.

“It’s kind of a second job,” she said, smiling. “I love teaching and learning.”

After spending time taking in the basics of search and rescue, Gourlay met Tracy Sargent, director of K9 Search and Rescue Services, a local nonprofit group that serves governmental agencies, groups and individuals needing assistance to search for lost or missing persons or help with the recovery of human remains. This meeting encouraged Gourlay to pursue this work even further.

During the past few years, Gourlay has worked with several Georgia K9 rescue teams, and she has also passed the selection process to join the K9 unit of the Georgia Body Recovery Team, a highly trained unit that includes some of the best handlers in the state.

The team, which is affiliated with a GEMA/GBI/Department of Corrections task force created after Hurricane Katrina, has been heavily involved with rescue missions in Georgia, including the 2008 case of abducted hiker Meredith Emerson.

Search and rescue handlers receive yearly instruction and updates in crime scene preservation techniques, helicopter delivery methods and incident command, in addition to staying current on required medical and CPR training.

Gourlay consistently works with her dogs, Jonah and Raja, spending at least a few minutes every day doing exercises. She also trains with other dogs and teammates on rescue topics, including navigation, stamina tests, movement in difficult terrain and bad weather.

“(Search and rescue) really meshes my love of animals and nature with helping the community,” she said.

But pursuing this call is no easy task.

“It’s a solid two years before you are ready to go,” said Gourlay, adding that she has been to more than 10 seminars.

She said she really likes the seminars because they are “hands-on training all day long.”

Seminars can range from a few days to a week, and they put the participants into different scenarios to learn applicable techniques. One of Gourlay’s first missions during a seminar was trailing, also known as a live find, when K9 teams are used to search for a live person.

This was a technique she had to use during her most recent mission in North Georgia.

In February, Gourlay and a team were called to aid with a missing person’s search in Whitfield County on the Georgia-Tennessee border. A 19-year-old man disappeared after setting out by boat on the Conasauga River.

The team was called out to the area a couple of days later when initial searches produced no results. While the chances of finding a person alive are usually slim, said Gourlay, the team continued the search for the young man with confidence and dedication.

The group, along with the GBI and other volunteers, spent weeks examining the area before the body of the young man was found in the water, shortly after his empty boat was discovered.

Whether it is good or bad news, “a lot of times it’s about giving closure to the families,” Gourlay said about her avocation.

While most students at Blessed Trinity know Gourlay for her hard work as their French or Spanish teacher, few know about the lengths she has gone to in order to help those in need in their community.

Search and rescue dogs need a lot of training and Gourlay has poured much of her own time and resources into pursuing her calling. But the satisfaction she receives from helping others in their time of need is worth facing all of those challenges.

“(Search and rescue) is something I’ll do for the rest of my life, as long as I can walk up a hill,” said Gourlay.