Ever try to teach a dog to fetch? How about sniff out a corpse or track a missing person? The all-volunteer Buckeye Search and Rescue Dogs team knows a thing or two about finding lost souls.
Payton wags his tail proudly at his owner, Liz Naber, clearly expectant of a reward. She tosses his favorite toy, a tennis ball, across the graveyard. He darts after it, tail wagging and tongue flopping. He has no idea what he’s just accomplished. Less than five minutes ago, Naber gave Payton, the nearly 3-year-old black Labrador, a one-word command: “hunt.” With unmatched gusto, he sprinted about, nose to the ground. He was on a mission. Within minutes, he has sniffed out the remains of a corpse that was buried in this cemetery in 1905.
Payton has been trained and certified by the International Police Work Dog Association in human-remains detection—or HRD, as the volunteers refer to it. He is one of 25 dogs on the Buckeye Search and Rescue Dogs team (BSARD). BSARD is a subset of a larger organization, the Ohio Federation of Canine Search Teams. It’s an all-volunteer, non-profit organization based in Southwest Ohio. The BSARD volunteers—originally seven members, but now 18-strong—are dedicated dog lovers who devote their time to helping locate missing people, relying on their trusty canine companions to bring much needed skills to the search.
The volunteers became involved in canine search and rescue for a variety of reasons. Ed Napier, one of the founding members of the organization, lost a friend who drowned in the Little Miami River long before there were organized local search dog teams. “I’ve been through that waiting and hoping. I can empathize,” Ed says. “It’s all about working together to achieve a mission. That missing person is somebody’s family member, friend, father, sister.”
Theresa Jones, another handler, and her husband, Dave, knew they would have to find an outlet for their first German shepherd, Eika, shortly after taking her in. “She needed to work and I had no interest in doing dog shows,” Theresa says. “I knew there had to be something worthwhile.” Search and rescue seemed a perfect fit for Eika, and Theresa and Dave were thrilled to stumble upon BSARD.
The dogs are constantly practicing their trade; BSARD holds training sessions twice a month, but owners work with their dogs several hours a week. Naber, Payton’s owner, commits a minimum of five hours every week to agility training, obedience and search training.
The dogs can sniff out anything organically connected to a missing person—a child’s scent on a sock, a cotton ball soaked in the person’s blood, hair trimmings, placenta, fat from liposuction surgery, baby teeth—you name it. The handlers keep a freezer full of oddball items like these, covered in biohazard stickers.“We ask for donations for items like these from hospitals, plastic-surgery clinics, doctors’ offices—wherever we can,” says Gloria Napier, a BSARD member and Ed Napier’s wife. “I’m notorious for when I find out somebody’s pregnant, for going, ‘Hey! Would you like to donate your placenta to us?’”
After a dog masters the required search techniques and is certified for field work, it’s time for the real work to begin. Gloria coordinates the BSARD missions and fields the calls from fire departments, police departments and other emergency services. (BSARD works directly with law-enforcement or emergency personnel, not through calls from families or non-officials, Gloria explains.) When a “mission” is received, the group decides how many dogs to deploy. An average case warrants four to five dogs. From there, handlers will dispatch to a scene and work with an operations specialist on the case from an emergency unit, such as a fire or police department. “After we’re briefed on a case, we’ll get together and develop a strategy and present it to the ops chief,” Ed explains.
The BSARD canine team is quite a colorful mix, including old dogs, puppies, fat dogs, skinny dogs and all sorts of breeds. When asked what breed makes for the best search dog, everybody offers a different answer: “Labradors!” “Shepherds!” Ed explains that everyone has a personal bias; the important thing, he says, is to avoid dogs with traits or physical characteristics that don’t make them good candidates for search and rescue.
For example, breeds with “smushed” faces that don’t breath well, such as boxers or pugs, aren’t ideal, but most mutts are just fine. “Mostly what you’re looking for is the personality of the dog,” Ed says. “A good search dog typically doesn’t make the best family pet. They’re very intelligent, independent, high-drive, busy dogs.”
Today is the first day of work for Payton, Naber’s lab, in several days; Naber says he’s been itching to get out and practice, as evidenced by his recent preoccupation with pulling toys into his crate and destroying them. Search and rescue dogs aren’t the lay-their-heads-in-your-lap, love-to-be-petted types of dog, Ed warns. Dogs labeled “neurotic” sometimes make the best searchers, uniquely skilled to be able to focus with great intensity. But it’s a tough job, even if the dogs make it look easy. “They’re not machines,” Ed says. “They’re ‘people,’ too.”
Each mission is different, and each dog’s skills may be different, too, so which dogs the team picks for a particular mission depends on the nature of a given search. As the team explains, there are four general types of search dogs. Trailing dogs run on a leash, and handlers run behind them as they follow the scent of a specific person. Area search dogs work off lead and they pick up the scent of the missing person in the wind. They’re generally not scent-specific; their task is usually to find anyone alive in a given area. Payton is a human-remains detection dog, another discipline. HRD dogs work similarly to an area search dog, but they’re looking for a cadaver, not a living person. Lastly, article search dogs seek out any item with human scent on it—usually a piece of evidence in an investigation. Several of the dogs are cross-trained, which makes for greater flexibility when the state of missing person is uncertain.
It’s an expensive hobby—the consensus among the handlers is that they spend $2,000-2,500 each year per dog, on gas, lodging, dog supplies and personal equipment. They’ve received grants before, but funding is hard to find. Still, membership continues to grow and the number of missions increases yearly: In 2011, BSARD fielded 18 missions, and 11 of those cases ended successfully in finding the missing person.
While the humans can feel the pride in accomplishing such important work, the dogs likely don’t have a clue about the significant role they play on missions. Case in point: Payton, who today runs back to Naber in the graveyard, ears flapping and tongue lolling. He drops a slimy tennis ball at her feet and takes off again in endless anticipation.