I have to admit that I am not unfamiliar with your last name. Because Josef Hepnar is the head of the Mountain Service of Orlická hora.
Yes, it’s not a name match, it’s my father.
So when I ask if you wanted to be a paramedic since you were a little boy, you probably couldn’t run away from it?
You can say he couldn’t. My father guided me to it and I liked it. It had its own line that one day I would also become a paramedic.
As cynologists, we operate throughout the country. For example, when the police call us, we pack everything and head to the location to start searching.
Jan Hepnar, cynologist of the Eagle Mountain Service
How did you start in the mountain service? Because you are a trained teacher, is that right?
It is so. First I taught, then I was with the fire and rescue service for two years, and then I had the opportunity to join the Mountain Service as a professional. However, before that I was already a voluntary member, I started actively when I was about 18 years old, I started going with my dad to various avalanche courses as a helper, where I helped when working with the dogs. And so I got to work as a dog trainer. I was hooked and knew that one day I wanted to do the job full time.
So dad used to take you to avalanches.
You can say that he let me bury somewhere underground.
So what is your main job? What does a cynologist do in the mountain service?
It is only a certain part of our work. We are first and foremost rescuers when we carry out normal activities, we go to the injured even without the dog. However, as cynologists, we operate throughout the country. When the dog has certificates, that is, it has passed all the tests, we leave at the moment when the police, who are the main component of the search, call us and ask for cooperation. We go out and try to find a replacement for ourselves if we are currently on duty. The management accommodates us in this. We immediately pack everything we have already prepared, put the dogs in the car and leave for the given place so we can start searching.
May we also introduce your canine sidekick that you are working with now? Because I know it’s already the second German shepherd.
He’s such a baby dog, here we go. His name is Leo, he is a German shepherd from a police dog handler, so he is a well-chosen dog who has the skills to be a good rescuer. He is tipped for this type of work. He is 10 months old and looks great so far. He really enjoys the work, and above all, I am also 10 years more experienced than with the first dog. That’s also known.
When he’s such a baby dog, don’t you want to cuddle him?
We cuddle, he is literally a member of our family. As with all mountain service cynologists. We have him at home, so he is also a family dog. Of course, the children also contribute, we teach him to be kind to everyone. Our advantage is that the dogs don’t have to watch over anyone, they don’t have to be evil, we don’t have to defend ourselves, for example to watch over our house. We really have him for work, but at the same time also so that we can live a normal, ordinary life with him.
How long does it take to train a mountain service dog? And what do they actually have to be able to do?
Basic training lasts approximately two years. We start right from the age of two or three months, when we take the dog, and the socialization takes place in the same way as with humans. First, we start in the nursery, which means that the dog has to get used to other dogs, to people, to what his work will entail. We move in a rather complicated environment, which is often dangerous, noisy and dusty, we fly with a helicopter when the noise is abnormal. And in about a year, specific training can begin, when we are already focusing on the search for missing persons. And then the dog can start doing tests. And they last about one year with us.
It doesn’t matter if the mountains are 1,000 or 3,000 meters high. Rescue services must be at the same high level in the Krkonoše Mountains as in the Alps.
Jan Hepnar, cynologist of the Eagle Mountain Service
So Leo is still in kindergarten now.
You could say. But I already go with him to all the exercises, he prepares, he looks at the other dogs so that he can work with them. We move, for example, in an environment of twenty dogs together, and there would be a problem if they started to fight. Those dogs must be used to each other.
You also collect successes at international competitions of rescuers in European mountains. Did you finish third in the mountain rescue race in the Italian Dolomites this year?
It is so. We formed a team of four, we were already there for the third time this year. The first year we were second, last year we won and this year we were third, the competition was really great. Surprisingly, we had a faster time than last year and still finished third. However, it was a great success. We are happy that they are counting on us there, and it is beautiful when the four of us can divide and share that energy and joy.
So are you as good as the rescuers who work in the Alps or other big mountains?
We are. There is no other way. It makes sense because it doesn’t matter if the mountains are 1,000 meters or 3,000 meters high. The paramedics still have to be top notch. It cannot be said that we can only do something because we have small mountains. So our rescue skills are exactly the same.
What were the disciplines during the competition?
The main one was a challenging run as it ran up a hill to some 2,500 altitude. And within that enclosure there was also a via ferrata, there was abseiling on our own ropes that we had to carry with us, there was stretcher carrying. Competitions are beautiful in that we find out which techniques are the fastest many times, because speed is necessary in a real hit. So we are improving in this as well. And as far as passing on contacts is concerned, we attend various trainings and courses and thus acquire contacts.
Can we mention any sharp hits you’ve had?
Certainly. I will talk about the more cheerful ones. The sad ones are etched in the memory the most and unfortunately there are a lot of them, but there are also not a few happy ones. I will mention the search file when my original dog Casi found several missing persons. Such a very funny intervention was when the mushroom picker got lost, she called out that she really didn’t know where she was. She was actually completely lost in a relatively small piece of forest and was unhappy. She heard the horn from a relatively long distance away, so I asked her to sit on the tree stump and wait. And when a dog runs up to her, so that she doesn’t bite him. And the dog started barking in about eight minutes, I came there, the lady was petting him and was very happy that he found her.
It must be a great satisfaction for you too, when something like this works out.
It is the fulfillment of that expectation. For the dog, it is the same training as sharp action. But for me, as a dog handler, it is certainly a joy to know that the work is not in vain. She is never wasted because it’s a team effort. We even found, for example, a fifteen-year-old girl who ran away from a school trip. It was around midnight, two degrees above zero, it was raining, the young lady ran out in only a nightgown, somehow she didn’t get along with the teacher, she was still a little drunk, I would say, and it was in places where there are rocks, so it was dangerously. And the dog found her in about half an hour, everything went well.
And has Leo found someone too?
Not yet Leo. He’s in that first phase of training where he’s getting ready, that preparatory phase. It cannot yet be deployed in sharp actions. But he can find everything now. Mainly food.
Jan Hepnar, a cynologist of the Mountain Service of Orlické hory, says, to whom we wish that his rescue operations always turn out well.