UAA Gymnastics Coach Paul Stoklos trains to save lives

Paul Stoklos and his German Shepherd Mora, who train weekly to stay sharp while there are no emergencies for Mora to search for people on. Photo By Ashley Smith

Correction: The article originally  stated that Marko Cheseto had to have his hands and feet amputated. Cheseto only had to have his feet amputated not his hands.

UAA may know Paul Stoklos as being the Seawolf Gymnastics coach since the program began in 1985 but he has a hobby that he is just as passionate about away from the mats and bars.

“When I got into ski patrolling here somebody told me, ‘well there’s this guy who’s a ski patrol instructor’ and that was Bill Tai, who was my link into Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs,” Stoklos said.

Before moving to Alaska in 1984, Stoklos knew he wanted his next dog to be a search and rescue trained dog. However, he already had an older German Shepherd who had moved with him. After he flew his elderly companion out to Arizona to retire, as he stated playfully, “like all the old folks who retire in Arizona,” Stoklos got another Shepherd in 1988 and started training with Arrow in 1989.

Since then, he has had to balance coaching a college gymnastics team while training his dogs and also volunteering for various searches with those dogs.

Despite how difficult that sounds, Stoklos has produced impressive records through his gymnasts and continues to be able to maintain his hobby.

“Fall semester, I can miss a day or two of practice if I have to but in meet season I can’t miss a road trip,” Stoklos said. “Ya know, we’re all volunteers, we all have real lives and sometimes we just can’t go.”

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Stoklos has been ski patrolling since he was 16, which he credits for getting him into the rescue scene. All four of his search dogs over the years have been German Shepherds. His first search dog was Arrow.  His second, Kiana, was named after the village of his first search he took Arrow on. Buck was his third and was named after the dog he grew up with. Buck searched up until a month before he died, although he was old for a search and rescue dog and not extremely mobile, his nose still worked and his last search was on a boat, searching for a person whom had drowned. Stoklos’ fourth and present dog is Mora, named by his ex-wife who originally wanted to name her Precious.

“Precious was not going to work,” Stoklos said. “I told her originally that as long as it was a working dog’s name, she could pick it. So after that, she came up with Mora.”

Mora, Stoklos was told, was Spanish for Blackberry and decided it was a great name for the small, all-black German Shepherd.

Search and rescue dog handlers always continue to add to their dogs’ knowledge and problem solving abilities, according to Stoklos, but a majority of their training is done after two-three years. Mora, 7 years old, began her training the first day that Stoklos brought her home at 8 weeks, however training very much starts out as a game with puppies and increases to training and learning through positive reinforcement with the dogs. There are three disciplines that the dogs can be trained in: wilderness, cadaver, and avalanche.

“For cadaver work, we are training them to find dead bodies, which means you have to have dead body stuff,” Stoklos said. “When I was getting my appendix out I told them, ‘Save the appendix!’ and they were laughing at me as I’m going out from the drugs and I was like ‘No I train search dogs, I need the appendix…’ but they didn’t save my appendix.”

Both Stoklos and Mora help train other members in Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs, or ASARD, which is a nonprofit and volunteer search program. Paul Brusseau has known Stoklos since 1995 where they met through the program.

“He’s been a really good teammate,” Brusseau said. “His understanding of dogs has been something that he has been able to pass along to other folks and I have certainly been one of the beneficiaries of that.”

Brusseau has trained two dogs through Stoklos’ mentoring and presently works with his second search dog, Sky.

Although they are trained for most possible searches, in the beginning of November 2011, Stoklos was called to a search that hit a little closer to home.

UAA cross-country and track and field star Marko Cheseto went missing on a snowy winter evening.

“I know Marko, and yeah it’s hard because you really want this person to come home and you really want to find them,” Stoklos said. “We are really that way on every search but it hits home a little more.”

Cheseto was found alive two days later but sadly had to have both of his feet amputated due to being frozen after he got lost in the woods and fell asleep.

For now, Coach Stoklos is still training with his gymnastics team, training with Mora and other ASARD dogs, and contemplating when to get his next puppy so that it’s trained by the time Mora retires.

“At some point and time I’m thinking to myself, it’s time to let the young people to do all this,” Stoklos said. “But it’s pretty much in my blood. I don’t know how I’d stop doing it either, there will probably be something that makes me stop doing it more than anything