Sniffing for the Missing: the Dogs of Search and Rescue 

Sit. Stay. Search.

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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.

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