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Search and Rescue - Hard Working Dogs
July 7, 2012
By Mary Pechar
Snickers has her eye on the ball, her reward for finding the 'victim.'
Tribune Photo/Fred Pose
While walking across the grassy field, I spotted a slight break in the adjoining wooded area underbrush and headed in. Taking a winding path through the brush, I went around trees and over downed limbs. Eventually I found my spot standing in a slight gully, behind a tree, surrounded by brush.
I thought, I should duck down and try to disappear, but I wanted to watch for my pursuer’s approach. Soon he came loping across the field. All of a sudden it is obvious that he senses something as he makes an abrupt left turn and bounds into the woods about 30 feet from my entrance. Within an instant there he sits staring me in the face. Gunner barks to alert and I have been rescued.
While many of us come equipped with our own personal GPS (cell phone) these days, search and rescue dogs are still one of the best tools available when someone or something needs to be found.
Gunner is a 16 month old trainee with Missouri Search and Rescue K-9 (MoSAR). He and his birth sister Snickers are in the midst of their training and certification in order to join the active duty roster.
MoSAR is a volunteer, non-profit service group of canines and their handlers living in the Kansas City area whose primary objective is to assist in saving lives by finding lost or injured persons. Attending a MoSAR training session is an eye opening experience. These volunteers dedicate hours and hours to training each week.
If you or someone you love are lost or the victim of a disaster, your situation is anything but a game. But don’t let the K-9 half of the rescue team know that because they happily approach their job as a game of “fetch” rewarded by a great game of “tug of war” with their favorite toy.
Prior to being certified and added to the active search roster, a K-9 and their handler receive a full year’s training. Even after their initial certification, each handler is expected to keep current on the latest search techniques as well as First Aid, map and compass navigation, and wilderness survival. In addition, each handler and dog team must pass regular fitness qualifications.
Chris Tindall, with MoSAR, said, “The entire unit trains together a minimum of twice a month. Other training sessions may include the entire group or perhaps individuals getting together on their own. The objective is 4 hours of training each week on each discipline of search the dog performs.”
While Gunner, Snickers and the other K-9’s are playing and learning important skills, the rest of the team continues to train, keeping their skills sharp never knowing when they may be called into action. My ‘rescue’ was just another game played during a morning of training.
Many of the team’s K-9 members are aging so some handlers have begun training second dogs. The first dog a MoSAR handler works with must perform both rescue searches, locating the living and recovery, bringing home the deceased victim. With their second dogs, some team members have chosen to focus on a specific area.
The day started with “bark box” exercises. An enclosed box, called an Ensler Bark Box. large enough to hold a person with a single door that is raised by a rope and pulley was the first lesson. A volunteer enters the box with the rescue dog’s favorite training toy. The dog is released and instructed to find the person. The objective here is to teach the dog to properly alert. Once the dog barks at the box for 30 – 45 seconds, the handler opens the door and the “tug of war” begins.
Another version of the “bark box” exercise focuses on locating and alerting on cadaver remains. Four square boxes called indication stations are set in a line. Only one box contains the specimen which is handled by gloved hands to prevent contaminating the scent. The box also features a remote control device that shoots a tennis ball out of the hole once the dog appropriately alerts. This is a favorite game for both the dogs and those training with them.
MoSAR dogs are trained for a variety of situations. Disaster Dogs are trained to find human scent in unnatural environments, areas impacted by tornadoes, earthquakes and other disasters. The dog is trained to work on unstable surfaces, such as small confined spaces found in a collapsed structure. Tindall and his K-9 Lacey are both experienced at rappelling when necessary in order to reach a search area.
During this particular training session, Snickers was being tested for her water certification. Her objective was to ‘find’ three separate remains; two along shore and one in deeper water. She searched closely, checked back to make certain and alerted on all three locations. Snickers is the second Search and Rescue K-9 for handler Michi Ward and she seems to have a special affinity for cadaver work. While she is capable of detecting any form of human scent, she first identified cadaver remains therefore her handler Michi has chosen to train Snickers as a cadaver dog.
MoSAR dogs are trained in air scent. They find traces of human scent that are drifting in the air and look for the ‘cone’ of scent where it is most concentrated. “All humans, alive or dead are constantly emitting microscopic particles bearing human scent,” said Tindall. “Millions of these particles are airborne and are carried by the wind for considerable distances.”
Some of the MoSAR dogs are also used as trailing dogs. Lacey is proficient in trailing. To demonstrate this skill Tindall had three of us head out into the grassy field. We spread out in a line and one person dropped a bandanna. We then walked up the hill crisscrossing as we walked. When trailing, the K-9 works in a harness and on a lead. You could see the “all about business” demeanor that came over Lacey as she donned her harness. As she followed our paths up the hill you could tell she recognized our different scents. Lacey came to the first of us in line and stopped long enough to confirm that person was not who she was looking for. Then, after a brief sniff down the line, Lacey sat and alerted on the bandanna owner.
While area law enforcement agencies have K-9 units, as we will learn next week, their focus is on tracking the “bad guy”. MoSAR K-9’s are often called in to assist law enforcement agencies in locating evidence. Lacey recently assisted a local law enforcement agency with finding articles of interest in a current investigation.
While most of the MoSAR dogs delight in a romp and swim in the nearest water, they are also experienced in a water search. In this case the dog must detect human scent in or under the water by focusing on the scent of bodily gases that rise up. The team may work in a boat or along the shoreline. The currents and depth of water can make it hard to pinpoint the location of a body, but in a previous area drowning a MoSAR team was able to direct divers to the body.
Obedience training plus specific Search and Rescue discipline training are both critical components to a K-9’s success. However, the most critical factor is the bond between the handler and their dog. On a hot summer day, the handler must pay close attention to the physical impact on their dog. 30 minutes may be the longest a dog may work without needing to rest and re-hydrate. Not only does the dog rely on their handler for their health and safety, but the handler’s bond and knowledge of their dog allows them to correctly interpret what their K-9 is telling them.
“The dog really takes its clues from the handler,” said Michi. “Especially with having a cadaver dog, I need to stay as up and positive as I can be. Once we have completed our job and are on our way back home, we tend to let our emotions down and then so do our dogs.”
Tindall identified these characteristics to look for if you are looking for a rescue dog:
Excellent scenting capability
Strong drives (prey, pack, play, etc.)
High degree of intelligence
High degree of trainability
With the exception of perhaps the scenting capability, these also seem to be important characteristics for a K-9’s handler.
If you are interested in exploring the opportunity to become a part of this special group of volunteers visit: http://www.missourisearchandrescue.com/joinus.html.
Lee's Summit VFW Ladies Auxiliary having a Bowling For A Cure