For the love of hero dogs

For the love of hero dogs

Working as a rescue dog handler has taught René Bertelsen patience, discipline, and prioritisation – important skills he is able to apply in his ‘day job’ as a sales manager at Wärtsilä.

Text: Silja Kudel Photo: René Bertelsen

The shelves of René Bertelsen’s home in the north Danish town of Hjørring sag under the weight of all the trophies he has won – or, to be precise, awards his dogs have won in international obedience championships. Bertelsen is a passionate trainer of search and rescue dogs – not for the sake of amassing trophies, but to save lives as a volunteer rescue worker.

Bertelsen leads an itinerant lifestyle as Wärtsilä’s Global Sales Manager for Seals & Bearings Alignment and Other Services in Denmark. “I don't actually have an office besides my home office, since I’m always flying around to customers,” he says.

In addition to flying for work, Bertelsen has clocked up an impressive number of flight miles taking part in disaster and humanitarian relief operations. He and his two dogs have travelled to countless locations – exotic and perilous – to save precious human lives.

As he works closely with multiple aid organisations, Bertelsen is not able to disclose the precise location and nature of the missions he has completed. Nor is he at liberty to reveal exactly how many lives he and his dogs have saved. “I’m not allowed to be specific – but let’s just say we’ve saved quite a few,” he says with a modest smile.

The most memorable incident of his volunteer rescue career was undoubtedly the first life he ever saved. But, he adds solemnly: “You always have to keep in mind that there are many stories that don’t end well, too.”

For the love of hero dogs 2
René Bertelsen is a passionate trainer of search and
rescue dogs.

  
Collie connection

Bertelsen’s two rescue dogs are border collies, 10-year-old Pepsi and 5-year-old Ekko. As one of the most intelligent of all dog breeds, sharp-eyed, quick-thinking border collies make excellent rescue dogs. These farm dogs are famous for their great enthusiasm for working and shepherding. Although their boundless mental and physical energy occasionally makes them challenging pets, their workaholic tendencies are wonderfully useful when lives hang in the balance.

Possessing a natural affinity with canines, Bertelsen has been training dogs ever since his childhood.

“I am the third generation of dog handlers in my family. It has always been in my blood. Ever since I was young, I was apparently quite good at it. I have been Denmark’s national champion eight times, and I have attended many international tournaments – and won many of them too.”

Training a rescue dog is a complicated, time-consuming process that requires passion and dedication from both teacher and pupil.  “The dog needs to love people for a start. The training is initially very intensive. I spend around 20 hours a week working with the dog for the first two years.  After that, it goes down to 2-4 hours a week.”

Preparing a dog for the challenging task of saving lives is a more complicated proposition than simply teaching “tricks”. “They need a lot of environmental training to get them accustomed to flying, train rides and even rappelling.”

Border collies are highly sensitive to sound, and need special training to learn how to react (or not to react) to multiple sounds. When the dog is finally trained, however, the rewards greatly outweigh the effort and challenges, notes Bertelsen.

For the love of hero dogs3
Bertelsen’s two rescue dogs are border collies.

  
Learning life lessons

When asked the delicate question of which dog is his favourite, Bertelsen hesitates, as if to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings. “I love both my dogs, but of course the more you go through with a dog, the closer the relationship gets.”

Far more than just a ‘hobby’, working with rescue dogs is a passion project that inspires and energises Bertelsen amid his daily routine. “It’s exciting to make a difference and save lives, whether it’s a small child lost in the forest or somebody trapped under a house. Our job is to find them and save them.”

Bertelsen’s volunteer work has also taught him many valuable lessons that have broadened his perspective beyond the “engineer’s viewpoint on life.”

“Structure is probably the thing I need most in both jobs. But rescue work has also taught me what is really important…. and what things can wait.”

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