Sniffing for the Missing: the Dogs of Search and Rescue 

Sit. Stay. Search.

Page 4 of 5

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.

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