Sniffing for the Missing: the Dogs of Search and Rescue 

Sit. Stay. Search.

Page 2 of 5

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.

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