Sniffing for the Missing: the Dogs of Search and Rescue 

Sit. Stay. Search.

It begins with the test.

"You have to take something your dog is really motivated by, whether it's a treat or a favorite toy, and hide it," said Leanne Thurston. "Then, your dog has to look for it for at least two minutes."

Thurston's amped-up puppy surpassed five minutes without slowing down. After that, she had to make a commitment, too.

Thurston and her dog are members of the Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue Unit, Idaho's only stand-alone, nonprofit search and rescue group. There are 12 dogs on the team, each owned by volunteers willing to spend hours training not only their dogs but themselves.

It takes about 18 months to train a dog for certification in search and rescue through the National Search Dog Alliance, and their duties are intense: Dogs in IMSARU follow scents in the air and tracks on the ground to locate people lost in rugged terrain. In a worst case scenario, they are trained to find cadavers—even in lakes and rivers. They—and their owners—are committed to as many as 30 rescue missions a year.

Not every dog can become a search and rescue dog. Thurston said it takes something that can't be trained—it's a drive not found in most of our pets.

The Training

On a cold day in late November, a half dozen IMSARU volunteers drove from Boise to the snowy, overgrown outskirts of Idaho City to refine their tactics and sharpen their skills.

Andy Stehling pulled an orange mesh vest onto his copper-colored spaniel, Riffle. Riffle's job was to find another IMSARU volunteer hiding somewhere in a six-acre area.

"Are you ready?" Stehling asked Riffle, unclipping the dog's bright orange leash. "Go find."

With that, Riffle took off, systematically sniffing along sage brush and tree trunks, taking hairpin turns and ignoring everything else around him.

"When I put this vest on it's like flipping a switch," he said. "At home, he's very relaxed. Out here, he knows what to do."

Stehling grabbed a handful of snow and threw it into the air to check for wind direction. There was none.

"Since there's no wind, I think I'll divide the search area into thirds," Stehling said to Ann Moser, a team leader on the canine side of things for IMSARU.

"That works," Moser replied. "For your training perspective, work on your gridding."

As the two of them followed the snow-covered road, Riffle trotted ahead, criss-crossing his path and whining. A bell jingled from his vest.

When Stehling decided to get a dog a few years ago, he wanted it to have some sort of higher purpose. It took two years of sitting on a waiting list to get Riffle from a field spaniel rescue organization. Riffle's a sporting dog, so it's his job to find game.

"In this case, it's people," Stehling said.

After 10 or 15 minutes minutes, Riffle took another sharp turn and started sprinting up a steep hill. Stehling struggled to keep up, shouting "Found something? Show me, show me, show me!"

click to enlarge Andy Stehling rewards his dog, Riffle, after he sniffs out a hiding IMSARU volunteer. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Andy Stehling rewards his dog, Riffle, after he sniffs out a hiding IMSARU volunteer.

Riffle did just that. He found his target—an IMSARU volunteer sitting on a wet foam pad in the snow—and Stehling exploded with praise. He threw a squeaky ball to Riffle, who carried it around like a trophy.

"Now think about that without a dog," Stehling said. "You're just walking around, looking in that area. If it's chilly or windy, someone would bury themselves in brush to protect themselves from the elements. Even though they want to be found, they want to stay warm. You and I would walk right by. But the dog's nose knows."

Studies suggest a dog's sense of smell is 10,000-100,000 times more acute than a human's.

Moser picked up her radio and contacted base camp.

"We're ready for the next dog," she said.

The Commitment

Moser, a wildlife biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, has trained her dogs for IMSARU for nearly 10 years.

On that particular day outside Idaho City, she worked with Cricket and Watson, two giant black schnauzers with the same tenacious, no-nonsense attitude as her own.

"I mean, it's cool," Moser said. "To come out here and see your dog do that, that's just cool."

In her decade with IMSARU, her dogs have only made two finds. She goes out on every training and almost all missions, but half are usually canceled before base camp is even established (people missing usually turn up uninjured), and many of the other missions involve rescues rather than searches. Detection is rare.

"I mean, yeah, you're doing it because you hope you can help somebody, but what keeps us going is the training because it's so fun," Moser said. "It's so rewarding just to see your dog advance and excel and know that they are the best prepared they can be when the search comes.To be the best team you can be."

Moser trained Watson for seven years before he made his first find. It's a memory that generates strong emotions for Moser and is hard for her to talk about.

Looking down at the snow, she recalled the details of that summer day two or three years ago: The unit was dispatched the day before to locate a body—the aftermath of a suicide—and searched all day with little luck.

The next morning, Moser went out with Watson, walking along the Foothills, looking at her GPS, trying to decide which way to go next.

Unlike other search dogs that are trained to find the subject and then run back and alert their handler, Watson is specially trained to "stay and hold." When he comes across remains, he stays put.

"All of a sudden, my dog took off down the hill and then he disappeared," Moser said. "I came around the corner and he was laying with the guy."

Moser said she participates in search and rescue training to help bring closure to families of victims.

"I cried," she said. "I was so proud of [Watson]."

Training dogs for recovery missions is a drastically different process than training them for live searches. Each requires a separate certification, though some of the canines in IMSARU are dual-certified.

The dogs often have to start at an early age to train out an aversion to dead-scent. Then they have to be trained to detect the difference between dead deer, elk or other wildlife, and a person.

Linda Kearney, who also has a decade of experience training dogs for search and rescue, uses a special set of tools to train "cadaver dogs": human remains. Some are spread around her property outside of Idaho City, all in various stages of decomposition.

"We get parts donated," Kearney said, explaining it's mostly just hair, teeth and bloody gauze. "Some people in Nevada actually have the bigger pieces. We haven't figured out how to get that yet. I have to talk to the coroner up here."

IMSARU also uses donated placentas as a training material. Some are kept sealed in concrete blocks so they can be dumped in a lake for a dog to learn to detect the scent from the water's surface.

"In fact, I gotta talk to my daughter," Kearney said. "I want hers."

Kearney used a walking stick to keep up with her little cattle dog/heeler mix, Cayenne—IMSARU's smallest search dog—and talked about how she used to train dogs for agility but found this kind of training suits her better. It's less competitive, although it still takes a tremendous amount of time, work, patience, frustration and tears.

"You spend a year-and-a-half training a dog and then it washes out," Kearney said. "[The dogs] come up with some personality fault that you can't live with. All of a sudden, they don't like people, or they don't get along with other dogs, or they don't do well at base camp."

In order to be a certified as mission-ready, the dog needs to undergo a test administered by the National Search Dog Alliance, in which it has three hours to find two or three subjects in a 130-acre search area.

A few of Kearney's dogs didn't make it through the program. They're pets now and they sleep on her bed—but not Cayenne. Kearney is pretty sure the dog would destroy the house if she wasn't in a crate. That's a good thing. When she gets out in the field, she has a lot of pent-up energy. She's ready to go.

The Dogs

The dogs of IMSARU are as diverse as their owners. The unit has 60 members ranging in age from young adults to retirees, all from different backgrounds and all with different levels of experience in the backcountry.

The seven mission-ready dogs—plus five still in training—vary also: from Cayenne, the 20-pound heeler, and Riffle, the spaniel; to Kato, the German Shepherd-mix, who isn't exactly a model-citizen canine.

Kato was in four homes before his owner, Jen Skeldon, started his training for search and rescue. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Kato was in four homes before his owner, Jen Skeldon, started his training for search and rescue.

"I've heard Kato called an asshole; I've heard Kato's a jerk, he's obnoxious. People tell him to leave them alone," said Jen Skeldon, who has been working with Kato for two years. He was placed in four different homes before Skeldon adopted him from a pound in California.

"He's naughty," she said. Naughty as in, he has eaten a few kennels. He's intense and he's a terrible house dog, but Kato has an impressive work ethic.

On the day of the training, Skeldon wore a bright orange North Face jacket that matched Kato's search vest—a paw embroidered on her sleeve with the letters SAR, for "search and rescue."

Skeldon carried Kato's Chuck-It—a long plastic arm used for throwing tennis balls—into a wooded area while the dog sniffed around, anxious to get his reward. Skeldon shouted commands in German.

"He's the first talented dog that I've trained for this," she said. "It takes a lot to be a search dog, a talented search dog. You're looking for crazy hunt drive, confidence, the ability to work through a lot of things. When you first start, you're like, 'My dog will do stuff for me. They'll find people.' Then you actually work them and you're like, 'Nope.' They need a lot more than just a good nose."

When Kato caught the scent of his subject, he bounded up the hill. When he came back to Skeldon, he shoved his front paws into her waist, completely lifting her off the ground—the alert signal for having found someone. She stumbled back laughing and ran after him to the subject. He jumped excitedly between Skeldon and the subject until she threw his tennis ball.

Kato, a dog once dubbed unfit for society, is now part of a team called on by county sheriffs to help search for missing people.

click to enlarge Kato alerts owner Jen Skeldon after finding a subject in the woods outside Idaho City. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Kato alerts owner Jen Skeldon after finding a subject in the woods outside Idaho City.

"While there are other search and rescue operations headed by different counties, we have very highly trained dogs," said Jimmie Yorgensen, president of IMSARU and chairman of the board. "We get a lot of calls for our dogs. These dogs do what most police canines can't."

According to Yorgensen, who came to IMSARU eight years ago after a stint volunteering with the American Red Cross—including during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—most dogs trained for police work are "bite dogs."

"They're trained to catch and tackle people," he said. "Those dogs know the difference between marijuana and any other weed. Our dogs know the difference between a dead body and a dead deer."

IMSARU was asked to help locate people who died in a plane crash near Johnson Creek in January, and the team decided to send two cadaver dogs. Yorgensen said they were able to sense the bodies under five feet of snow.

"It kept [the county] from having to dig up a whole mountainside," he said.

The Team

The reward for finding anyone—alive or not—is huge. For families of lost loved ones, it's closure. For searchers, it's purpose and fulfillment. For the dogs, it's as simple as a getting a much-wanted chew toy.

But Stehling said Riffle has to be careful. While it's easy to laugh and have fun during trainings, missions become more stressful.

  • Jessica Murri

"They pick up on the handlers' emotions," Stehling said. "In fact, I'm switching a lot of my training now towards myself. To be able to keep my senses, make sure that I'm not missing anything. A lot of times, you'll rush off and you forgot to pack enough water, or you haven't checked your radio batteries because you're just so hyped to go into it. If you're that way, your dog will be confused, too, because they're so tied to you. You really are a team."

IMSARU's trainers work hard to stay sharp, conducting mock missions a few times a year that include setting up a complete base camp and searching hundreds of acres. They travel to trainings in Nevada and go through recertification every two years, usually in Montana.

A few weeks ago, Kearney spent four days in California training with the Border Patrol. The trip cost $7,200 out of pocket, but she said it's training she could never get up here. Stehling said everyone wants to be the one to find the missing person but that can't be the reason for doing what they do.

"In the grand scheme of things, yeah, everyone dreams that, oh, you're going to be the one with your dog to find a lost child that's been out there for two days and that would be so neat to do that," Stehling said. "But in the back of your mind, that has to be kind of far down the list—that you're actually going to find someone and get that monster reward. Your reward needs to come from preparing for that."

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