Column: Amazing dogs

Published 8:29 am Thursday, January 15, 2009

By Staff
Years ago while a game warden in Washington State I found myself assisting the Sheriff Dept. with a murder. The sheriff and I arrested the perpetrator but the victim could not be found.
As the day neared when the suspect would be released for lack of evidence the sheriff put out a plea for search dogs. I was amazed when handlers and dogs poured in from all up and down the West Coast. I worked along side these teams day and night and finally, just four hours before the suspect was to be released, the body was located. Thus began my fascination with search and rescue (SAR) dogs.
More routine SAR work is finding lost or disabled people in the great outdoors, which does then not seem so great to them. I've been dogless for a number of years and have been thinking this just might be right up my alley. With a little searching (okay, corny pun) I found K-9 ONE, one of several Michigan based search and rescue dog organizations. Luckily they were soon conducting a drill near Flint and invited wife and I to attend. Last weekend we set off in the blizzard to learn what SAR dogs are all about.
There's an awful lot more to this than I ever imagined. I learned that individual SAR dogs are specialized depending on the breed and their training. There are two basic types, tracking and air scenting. Tracking dogs are scent specific. That is, they are given a whiff of a particular scent, put their nose to the ground and follow that scent step for step. I find this most appealing. The undisputed king here is the bloodhound but I just can't warm up to a horse sized, floppy eared, sagging jowls, drooling, bawling bloodhound. I asked one of the K-9 ONE experts about other breeds for tracking. He said most any dog can be, and often is, taught to follow a specific scent but none are in the bloodhound's league. He said other dogs may be able to follow a 12-hour old trail. Bloodhounds can follow a three WEEK old trail so why handicap yourself?
Air scent dogs are more common. They follow scent drifting in the air as opposed to on the ground. Their scenting is non-discriminatory, meaning they just go find anyone in the area, so they don't work well in populated settings. They excel in the wilderness or when there are multiple people such as in a disaster. They often complete their mission faster than a tracking dog. They work off leash, finding the person(s) then returning to lead the handler to him. Say a lost child or person with Alzheimer's has been wandering aimlessly for hours. It's going to take a tracking dog and his handler roughly that same amount of hours to follow the trail. An air scent dog may race through the area, catch the scent and find the person in minutes. The breeds most popular for this are working dogs like border collies, German shepherds and Labrador and golden retrievers but there really are no limitations.
Air scent dogs are even further specialized. Some are trained for human remains detection. They can find deceased people or parts thereof even buried or under water or ice. Amazingly, they can detect the tiniest traces of remains that are many years old. Others are trained for disaster work. These are agility dogs that clamber through rubble searching only for live victims, leaving those not so fortunate to their Human Remains Detection counterparts in order to save time. Many SAR dogs are cross trained in several specialties. A dog must be officially tested and certified before allowed on a mission.
The handlers devote their lives to this work. Most SAR organizations require their members to attend weekly regional training sessions and report every month for a statewide, full scale drill such as we attended. They train at home every day. In addition to the glory stuff the dog must be the definition of manners and obedience and that alone is mission impossible for us mortal dog non-whisperers. And most dumbfounding – they're all volunteers paying their own expenses, including travel. Now that's dedication. Carpe diem.
He can be reached at