Cass County K-9 uses nose to save a life

Published 10:23 am Friday, June 19, 2015

Earlier this month, two of the Cass County Sheriff’s Office’s most unique deputies were sent into action, following the disappearance of a 91-year-old woman in Berrien Springs.

Authorities had spent nearly eight-hours in vain trying to track down the location of a dementia patient, who had stepped away from her residence around 4 a.m. that morning. With their current manhunt not generating any results, police called in a pair of specialists from the next county, one of whom has the nose for this sort of work.

Arriving on the scene around noon that day were K-9 officer Tiffany Graves and her trusty partner, Nellie the bloodhound. After taking in the scent of the missing woman, the dog led her trainer on the trail the elderly woman left after leaving her residence, which led to a nearby apartment complex where a family taken her in.

“Within five minutes, she was able to do what they [other officers] had tried to do for several hours,” Graves said.

The deputy and her dog were the special guests during Thursday’s meeting of the Dowagiac Rotary Club, which met for their regular afternoon meeting at the Dowagiac Elks Lodge.

The officer was invited to speak by her boss and Rotary member, Sheriff Joseph Underwood.

Graves, a native of Baroda, developed a passion for working with bloodhounds while working for the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office in Florida. After moving back to Michigan and joining the Pokagon Tribal Police in 2008, she approached the department about hiring a dog to assist in missing children cases.

While unsuccessful with her pitch to her home department, Sheriff Underwood expressed interest in bringing one of the animals on board with his department. In 2013, Graves and 6-month-old Nellie became deputies with the Sheriff’s Office, Graves said.

“She’s an employee of the sheriff’s office; she gets paid in vet bills and dog food,” Graves said, of Nellie. “She actually has her own badge and ID card.”

Called in for cases involving missing children, Alzheimer patients, and other disappearances, Nellie is trained to pick up the scent of a particular person, following his or her trail until locating the subject. Unable to tell the difference between training exercises and real calls, Graves always gives Nellie a treat (in her case, a toy) when she successfully locates her target, Graves said.

“It’s about the rewards,” she said. “It’s about the game. Everything is a game with these dogs, and it has to be high reward.”

While obviously it’s an exhilarating experience for both Graves and Nellie whenever they are able to track down a missing person, it weighs heavily on both when the end of their trail leads to someone who is already deceased, as in the case of a missing woman in Keeler Township back in March, Graves said.

“While I say it’s a fantastic job, and it is, there’s a lot of stress when you get there and someone tells you ‘find my mom’ or ‘find my kid,’” Graves said. “That’s a lot of pressure.”