THE GRIT AND DETERMINATION OF SEARCH AND RESCUE DOGS
The Great St. Bernard Pass connects Martigny in Switzerland with Aosta in Italy via the third highest road in Switzerland, passing along the ridge between the Mont Blanc and the Monte Rosa, the two highest summits of the Alps. Evidence of people using this road have dated back to the Bronze Age and portions of it were part of the original Roman road system. Along the highest point in the road and covered in a perpetual snow, the Great St. Bernard Hospice was founded in 1049 by Saint Bernard of Menthon, an archdeacon in Aosta whose responsibility it was to care for travelers who frequently used the treacherous mountain pass. Tired of seeing weary travelers arriving into Aosta after having been terrorized by highway robbers, he decided to build a hostel at the summit, some 8,000 feet above sea level to offer protection and a place of respite against the dangers of the road.
Six hundred years later, monks at the hostel began to breed mastiffstyle Asiatic dogs with other large breeds found in Italy as companions and guard dogs for the hostel. Just before 1700, they started naming their breeds St. Bernards, and by 1750, they routinely were sent along with servants called “marroniers,” who helped guide the travelers safely down the mountain. The broad chests of the St. Bernards were used to clear a path in the snow, but it was soon discovered that they possessed an incredible sense of smell and that they could easily discover people buried in snow and seek out injured or lost travelers. For the next 150 years, they would be sent out in packs of two or three in search of lost travelers or avalanche victims. When a traveler was scented, one St. Bernard would dig down through the snow and locate the person, then sit on him to provide warmth while the others returned to the hostel to alert the monks.
The most famous St. Bernard of them all was an individual name Barry, who lived at the hostel from 1800 to 1814 and is credited with saving over 40 people in his lifetime. The most famous rescue occurred when a young boy was injured in an avalanche and was unable to move. When Barry found him, he licked the boy’s face until he awoke, laid with him to warm him up, and incredibly, carried the boy on his back to the hostel. Since then, one dog at the hostel has always been named Barry in his honor, but the little casks of rum on their collars is just a myth.
Fast forward 200 years, and dogs’ keen sense of smell, their unfaltering loyalty, and their remarkable ability at direction finding is still highly valued during search and rescue missions throughout the United States, especially in remote wilderness locations of the western states.
We met with five such remarkable dogs and their intrepid handlers, all unpaid volunteers offering their services to not only local law enforcement in California, but are willing to travel to neighboring states when the need arises. They are all members of California Rescue Dog Association (http//search-dogs.carda.org).
Established in 1976, the California Rescue Dog Association (CARDA) enjoys the resources of over 120 mission- ready dog teams spread throughout the state, in addition to 113 volunteers that search without the aid of a dog. CARDA teams participate in around 400 searches per year. Members are available 24-hours a day, seven days a week, to search any part of the state for any kind of missing person (e.g. missing child, lost hiker, trapped earthquake victim, or missing elderly).
All CARDA dog handlers initially train a dog in one of two disciplines: trailing or area search. Trailing dogs are trained to follow the path that a lost person has taken. Similar to stereotypical bloodhounds, these dogs require a properly preserved scent guide (i.e. like a sock or glove from the subject) and are not distracted by other people in the area. These dogs work on long leashes. Trailing dogs can frequently work trails that are hours or days old.
Area Search dogs are trained to find any human scent in the area regardless of subject or context. Area search dogs work most frequently off-leash and can cover very large areas. They are trained to find a person and then return to their handler with a notification.
After certifying in one of these disciplines, teams may certify in any combination of the following specialties: Cadaver dogs are trained in the location of human remains, regardless of the stage of decomposition.
Water Search dogs are trained to locate human remains which emanates from under the water. These dogs work along the shore and in boats to locate the scent as it rises up through the water.
Avalanche dogs are trained to locate avalanche victims buried in snow. Disaster dogs are trained to locate victims of any number of natural disasters that may be buried in rubble from a collapsed buildings. In California, this type of dog is most often used after earthquakes, but in other states, they can be used after hurricanes or tornados.
Volunteers, through training and exercises, devote up to 100 hours a month in the preparation of being called on by the community. They represent a wide swath of society and many different backgrounds, from active or retired peace officers to working professionals. Despite this, they all have a common interest in helping people with their unmatched expertise in the use of search dogs.
For the last 22 years, Donna Sanford has been a language arts and social studies teacher at a middle school in Temecula, California, and for the last 15, she has been very involved in CARTA. Six-year-old Ceri is a Dutch Shepherd who began her life in the competitive French Ring Sport, a personal protection sport that, through competition, tests a dog’s working ability. At 14 months old, when the handler determined Ceri would never be competitive in French Ring Sport, Donna took her in and introduced her to the search and rescue life. Donna originally went with her husband Steve to his training and deciding that she needed a dog, too. Rasta, her first dog, a German Shepherd, worked until he was 12 years old.
As hikers and campers, the rugged demands of search and rescue fit well with their lifestyle, marrying their love of the outdoors with their desire to give back to the community. Donna added, “Finding missing people is our way to give back to the community, and the times we provide closure to families suffering a loss is also important.”
Ceri, Donna’s third dog, is an area search dog as well as certified in finding human remains. Known colloquially as a “cadaver dog,” Donna trained her from a puppy to search for human remains with the help of the local coroner’s office, which provided towels and clothes that had spent time near a body. “We even hit up our friends for used band aids,” Donna says. “Scent sources that are real work the best” for training. Ceri’s scent is so specialized that she can tell the difference between human and animal, even through several feet of dirt.
A couple of years ago in Thousand Palms, Calif., Ceri and Donna were assigned to search for a transient who had built a shelter in a sand berm that had collapsed. In no time, Ceri displayed her “tell,” the signal that lets Donna know she found something. “She drops her chin down at the source and then sits on top of it.” Twelve feet down through the sand, they found the body.
Another instance bears a testament to Ceri’s abilities. A 17-year-old girl had been murdered by her boyfriend, placed in a trashcan and dropped off the La Sobrante Landfill in Riverside, Calif. At the culmination of a two-month-long search, on the very last day of the search in that area of the landfill, Ceri came upon the scent of the girl’s remains. Ceri had only been certified for three months, and it was one of her first searches.
I.C., an Australian Shepherd, is Trish’s sixth mission-ready search and rescue dog, as she has been actively involved in search and rescue since 1992, when the chief of a volunteer fire department she was working at was the captain of the local search and rescue team. “He had a dog, and it intrigued me,” says Trish. “He got me involved in the explorer search and rescue team when I was only 22 years old. My first SAR dog was a German Shepherd from the pound.”
Now a medical supervisor at the San Diego Humane Society in Oceanside, Calif., Trish remembered her earlier experiences: “Your first dog will take you two years to train because you’re learning about search and rescue while you’re trying to teach your dog. You get involved in training groups. You can get a mentor and lots of help from the team. I spent a lot of time watching what other handlers were doing. They were a wonderful group for support.”
Becoming a dog handler is just as difficult as the training is for the dogs. You need to know a great deal of outdoor skills beyond just working with the dog. Rope work, knots, navigation, basic survival skills. Trish added: “You’re training the person as well as training the dog.” When heading out on a search and rescue mission, the law enforcement agency in charge usually asks for a three-day commitment from each team. Very infrequently is a hotel an option, so they usually sleep in the truck or in tents. “If they can bring you back to base they will, but if not, I always have my 72-hour bag with me. I can easily add equipment if it will be an overnight situation, either a lightweight tent, a tube tent or a tarp for shelter. If I am told that we’re using a helicopter to go five miles into the backcountry, I’m going to bring everything I can with me, as you can’t rely on the helicopter to come back and get you.”
I.C., which stands for Incident Commander because of his alpha personality, started training as an area dog when he was a puppy. Though he looks for live people, he is training for his cadaver certification too, so he can be more versatile in the field. However, he constantly exemplifies why dogs make excellent search and rescue tools.
In Oroville, Calif., a potentially suicidal man left behind all of his belongings and started walking down a dirt road behind his house. After he was reported missing by his family, law enforcement deployed K9 teams, I.C. and Trish being one of them. To pick up any potential scents, Trish allowed I.C., who isn’t a trailing dog, to tour the man’s house to get an idea of who they were looking for. The sun had set, and it was soon pitch black. The road that they were working led to an open field full of some abandoned cars. After checking each car, they were about to move on, when I.C. gave an alert (he jumps on Trish) and took her back to one of the cars. I.C. jumped onto the car, where they discovered the man hiding.
Mike De Lannoy
Certified as a wilderness area dog, three-year old Journey is a spirited border collie currently cross-training as a cadaver dog. “She’ll be ready to pass it,” boasted Mike. “It is unusual to have a cross-trained dog like this, one certified in both areas.” Mike is a structural engineer living in Corona, Calif., and he and his wife, Ember, volunteered for the search and rescue program before even having a dog. “I was just a ground searcher and used as support,” he added. Ember eventually got a dog, Auggie, and they were looking for a job for the dog to do. They were outdoors people; they liked to hike and camp. They began search and rescue because of the dogs, as it was a great way to give back to the community while giving the dog a real sense of purpose.
After getting involved with the search and rescue group (Mike, as well as some of the others are also attached to the Riverside County Search Dogs Association, a group affiliated with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department—Riverside- CountySearchDog.org), Mike began the search for his own dog. “I wanted a dog with good stamina, and border collies are known for good stamina and high drive. And it needed to come from a good line, with good body structure. Journey’s breeder tested the dogs for hips, eyes, and joints, so I knew that he would be up to the task.”
When they found Journey, Mike immediately started the task of training him to be an area search dog, something he picked up rather quickly. When the decision was made for Journey to branch out into other specialties, they chose cadavers because it pertains to a lot of searches in Southern California. To train to search for human remains, Mike found a variety of sources for materials, from human blood, bones and even placenta to dirt from an actual grave. The county coroner was cooperative in sharing materials. “In the case of Journey,” Mike said, “We hide bones and she finds them. There was no real difficult training involved. Journey just picked it up.” They place some gauze with a little blood on it out in a field, and she alerts to it immediately. “A two- or three-year-old bone has enough scent left on it for a dog to react with. It doesn’t take long for them to become familiar with the smell, and you can hide it three or four feet off of the ground or make it more difficult depending on the time of day and weather, and she will find it.”
One of Mike’s most memorable rescues was long before he had Journey as his partner. He was a support personnel, assisting Steve Sanford and his dog Guinness (page 81) on a search for a missing 19-year-old autistic boy in Wildomar, about 70 miles north of San Diego. The boy had a fascination with hiking and had mentioned to his mother that he always wanted to hike over the Cleveland National Forest to the beach. One day, he simply walked off the campus of his high school and was reported missing. Three days into the search, a woman recognized the boy on the news and reported that she saw him crossing an intersection on the opposite side of town the search was focused on.
When efforts were redeployed to the new area, a trailing dog found his scent, and it led up into a canyon. However, a hovering helicopter involved in the search was too distracting to the dogs, and it wasn’t until the helicopter peeled off to refuel were they able to hear the boy calling for help. Guinness found him huddled in a creek bed. At the hospital, because of a lack of medication he was on, his liver had already started to shut down, but they rescued him in the nick of time. “It was a special experience for us because we had saved the boy’s life,” said Mike, “and it was great to see how relieved the family was.”
A parts manager at a Lincoln dealership, Steve Sanford has been with his nearly seven-yearold German shepherd Guinness since he was a puppy. With his first German shepherd, Mythos, Steve got involved in search and rescue in 1999.
“When I got him, I decided that he wasn’t going to just be a pet and that I wanted to do something with him.” Originally he decided that he was going to begin the Schutzhund training, a rigorous program used to test the aptitude of German Shepherds as working dogs. “However, I met some search and rescue people, and that seemed to better fit our lifestyle.”
Steve and his wife, Donna (see page 78), are both outdoors people. “We do a lot of backpacking and camping, and this combines both of our desires: being able to do something outdoors with Guinness and to give back to the community.”
One of Steve’s earliest experiences with search and rescue didn’t involve Guinness, or any dog for that matter. “We were searching for a missing hunter, and I was paired with the hunter’s friend. It was getting toward the end of the day, and they were about ready to call of the search because it was getting hard to see and unsafe. We were watching the friend get more and more stressed out, and to finally almost come to tears when we heard on the radio that his friend was found. It gave us a real feeling of what the family of a missing person goes through.”
Guinness started training as a cadaver dog since he was a puppy, following in the footsteps of Steve’s first dog, Mythos (the fact that both of his Shepherds share the names of popular breweries is a coincidence).
“Training methods are play driven,” explained Steve. “It is one of the reasons I have a German shepherd is that they are a high-drive dog. You teach them to play at a heightened level, and the results are that they want to stay in that game.”
The first steps in training Guinness was a simple game of hide-and-seek. In full sight, Steve would run away and hide. “He would watch me run away from him and duck behind a tree.” Guinness would waste no time in finding him, where he would receive a lot of praise. “That’s how you start,” said Steve. “You’re teaching the dog a game, and as long as they have fun with it, they are going to do it well and they’re going to want to do it well.” Soon, you can transfer that concept to finding anyone.
To experience the motivation and drive of these dogs is a spectacular sight. Steve and Guinness were involved in a mission-ready test, a four-hour-long search and rescue exercise that covers 110 acres in search of one of three individuals. “We had worked for three hours and 55 minutes, and we hadn’t found a single person.”
Guinness was completely exhausted and stressed out because he could sense it was coming to an end, and it wasn’t a good end. The two ended up in an area they hadn’t yet searched, and “suddenly, Guinness’s ears pop up and he ran off, full of energy, and found someone.” His alert is that he bites a toy slung on Steve’s pack, but this time, Guinness was so excited that he had found someone, that he jumped on Steve and bruised Steve’s knee in the process. When Guinness led Steve back to the subject, he was so exhausted, he just laid down right there. “What impressed me most about Guinness,” added Steve, “is that it didn’t matter how tired he was, he did what he needed to do and did so with all of the energy he had left.”
Almost five years ago, Raezor, was returned to the animal shelter because the owner said she was a “stupid and untrainable puppy.” Kristi, a surgical tech who consults in the opening of new hospitals, adopted the Australian Shepherd-Springer cross, and decided to train her as a foster owner until she could find a loving home for her.
She got involved in search and rescue about 15 years ago when she would hike with the Butte County (Northern California) search and rescue team. “I like being able to help people, to do something to help bring a loved one home alive or, if we have to, bring home a body. I don’t like to say it gives them answers, but it might keep them from having questions.”
When Kristi moved to Southern California in 2011, she joined CARDA with her wife, Trish, before finding a dog. They had been in negotiations with a breeder for a dog, when they came across Raezor and her story of being returned to the shelter. They got her with the idea of giving her some obedience training before finding him a new home, and it never occurred to them to keep her. Trish and Kristi already had two dogs.
During this time, after Raezor had been with them for only a couple of weeks, they were called on a “private hire” search by the family of a missing person in the Fort Bragg area of Northern California. Raezor was only 16 weeks old, and instead of leaving him in the truck, they let him tag along. “We were walking down some railroad tracks, and the dogs would go out into the clearings and search,” remembers Kristi. “After a couple of times of the dogs going out, she started to go with them, pretty soon, taking the point in the search.” They traveled nine miles the first day and seven the second, and by the time they had concluded their search, “Raezor was doing fantastic work, showing a real aptitude for search and rescue.”
They began training her immediately. “We started working at night,” she explains. “So the dog relies less on his eyes and more on his nose.” They started with runaways, where they would take turns at hiding and letting Raezor find them. “We made a big deal about running away with her favorite toy, and then we let her lose and say, ‘go find.’” When they make a find, they get rewarded with a “massive puppy party.” Now, the term “go find” applies to anyone, anywhere.
Their most memorable search was before Raezor was mission ready, so she wasn’t officially a search and rescue dog yet. There was a car crash on the Feather River and the 70 in Northern California, and three people had died. First responders had found two of the bodies, and search and rescue was called in to locate the third. It was quickly found by another dog, so Kristi and Raezor headed for home, stopping at a restaurant for dinner before the long drive home. While there, they met the mother and grandmother of one of the crash victims.
“They asked to see the dogs,” explained Krisit. “And the mother was able to talk about her son. Her son loved dogs. Raezor was melting into her.” After a long reflective pause, Kristi continued: “That’s a story that always sticks in my head. It’s a sad story, but it was wonderful to see that Raezor played an instrumental part in helping the family deal with their loss.” Though she didn’t even complete a search that day, Raezor was still able to give what she could back to the community.
Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the January 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.