Mountain rescue dog Rusty dies |

Mountain rescue dog Rusty dies

Special to the Daily

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If you’re interested in becoming involved in Vail Mountain Rescue Group, alone or with your dog, contact Ann-Marie Cooper, Contributions in honor of Rusty and to support Vail Mountain Rescue Group, are welcomed; visit and click on the “Donate” button.

EAGLE COUNTY — Rusty, a 10-year veteran trailing, scent and cadaver dog with Vail Mountain Rescue Group, died unexpectedly Feb. 3 in Vail. Rusty is survived by Lee Bendel, his handler and rescue partner, and Lee’s wife, Linda.

Rusty was born just one year after 9/11, on Sept. 3, 2002. Mindful of that tragedy and with two sons who had worked near the World Trade Center, Linda brought home a book on how to train a search-and-rescue dog. This was the impetus behind Rusty’s career. Lee and Linda find search and rescue so rewarding they are getting a new puppy to train as a rescue dog for Vail Mountain Rescue Group.

For play and training, Lee often asked hiking companions to hide in the woods so Rusty could sniff them out. One such person was Emily, a new acquaintance whom he would not see again until three years later, when she hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross alone and went missing. Lee and Rusty were one of three rescue group search teams. On the hunt 1,000 vertical feet above Cross Creek, Rusty eagerly demanded to go upstream. His excitement signaled Emily was nearby. Lee called Emily’s name and heard “I’m here, help me!” Team 2 then spotted her with binoculars, and Team 3 carried her to safety. Without Rusty, she might have been missed in that vast terrain during the crucial early hours of a rescue.

Rusty’s skills were essential in dozens of other missions. Once on a summer afternoon, a mother and three 8-year old girls were caught in a freak storm at 10,000 feet. Rusty pulled Lee in a surprising direction, but he had caught their scent, sniffing them out so the team could bring them safely home.

Lee and Rusty appeared at local schools, the Vail Nature Center, the Eagle County Fair & Rodeo and at area Rotary Clubs to teach children and adults about search dogs and how to behave with dogs. Rusty always said “Never hug a dog you do not know without permission”!

When not on duty, Rusty enjoyed his travels with Lee and Linda, visiting 43 states, Washington, D.C., and one Canadian province. The Bendels want to thank everyone who has expressed their condolences. An 11-year-old girl, whose first question when visiting Lee and Linda, was, “When can I hide for Rusty?” poignantly wrote: “A dog is a lifelong companion, and he is still with you right now, keeping you safe as his spirit lives on.”

Rusty will be remembered for his trustworthiness and dependability — and for his habit of snatching sandwiches from fellow Vail Mountain Rescue Group volunteers.

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