Tears were shed last Friday when Queenstown search and rescue super-dog Ella was put down, aged 14.
“The whole family was there when she was put to sleep,” owner-handler Brent MacDonald says, admitting he shed a tear at the passing of his beloved black Labrador.
“She was a special dog,” the avalanche-dog trainer-handler says, “super-focused, super-motivated.”
Ella had nine years with MacDonald on search and rescue call-outs – a length of service almost unheard of among working dogs of any description, LandSAR support officer Mike Ambrose says.
The Queenstown rescue dog was also the first in New Zealand qualified in all three search disciplines – avalanches, wilderness searches and wilderness tracking.
MacDonald estimates he and Ella averaged three to five searches annually.
Ella’s “most significant search” was very early on September 11, 2001, he recalls.
A Glenorchy man who often walked alone in the back country had been missing nearly three days.
It wasn’t a happy ending, however.
MacDonald: “A cornice [of snow] had given way under his weight and he’d plummeted quite a distance, triggering an avalanche which buried him to about a metre above his head.”
Ella found the victim’s body within five or 10 minutes.
“Otherwise we’d perhaps have had to wait until late spring or summer until everything thawed out,” MacDonald says.
Ella retired from search and rescue four years ago to become even more of a family pet.
But old age crept up – she was becoming forgetful and losing her faculties, MacDonald says.
On the night of June 12 after toileting outside, Ella went missing for over three hours before MacDonald and his wife found her.
MacDonald: “It got to the point where I didn’t think it was fair on her, given what she’d achieved – I didn’t want to think of her perhaps stuck in a creek somewhere.”
Yet actually putting Ella down “wasn’t an easy decision”.