The 4-year-old boy, unable to speak, had been missing for nearly three terrifying hours. Klaus and his handler, Kris, tracked the boy for half a mile, straight to the ball pit at a pizza parlor, where the boy was happily playing. Hours, days, and years of training allowed Klaus to find the boy and return him safely to his frightened mother. Kris recalls the moment as “one of the happiest days of my life.”
Canine search and rescue demands the ultimate partnership between a dog and a human. Dogs are fast, easily run up and down hillsides, and detect smells that people don’t even know are present. People can read a topographic map, follow the instructions of a search manager, administer first aid, and drive a car. When these human skills are partnered with the skills of a canine, the two become an amazing resource to help search for missing people.
Training for SAR involves training the human as much as the dog. To become a search dog handler, Kris had to learn and demonstrate a dozen “handler skills,” including helicopter safety, preparing a patient to be carried out of the wilderness, search strategy, surviving outdoors overnight with minimal gear, and wilderness navigation. Klaus, her K9 partner, had to learn and demonstrate skills in obedience, agility, swimming, socialization, and many other areas. They were tested as a team, repeatedly, to ensure that they could locate missing people.
The search for the missing man had been underway since the previous evening. Ytzhack gave his dog, Negev, one of the man’s shoes to smell. Negev took off running, with Ytzhack racing behind him. Within minutes, Negev located the man atop a nearby hill.
It typically takes at least two years to train a search-and-rescue dog team. California Rescue Dog Association, or CARDA, dog handlers are volunteers, but they must meet the same standards as full-time professionals. Many handlers describe search work as an unpaid profession, supported by their paid jobs.
Search-and-rescue dogs in California are usually owned by their handlers. When a dog and handler drop out of SAR training, it is almost always because the human member of the team is not able to continue with the work. Usually the problem is time: It can be difficult to balance SAR training and deployments with family responsibilities and employment. The expense (including gear, gasoline, and veterinary bills) also takes a toll. Sometimes the physical demands of the job, plus ticks, rattlesnakes, poison oak, and middle-of-the-night calls, are enough to convince prospective handlers to find something else to do with their dog.
But for those who feel a passion for the work, the rewards are endless.
Sonya and Ammo were one of 185 searchers looking for the missing woman. She was elderly and had been missing for three days. Ammo and Sonya had been searching for five hours when Ammo followed his nose to some clothing and then, deep in a ditch, to the missing woman. “As we waited for the medical team, the woman and I held hands,” Sonya said, “I was told she could not speak, but she spoke to me. She pointed and said, ‘dog.’ I replied, ‘That’s Ammo; he found you.’ Thinking about it still brings tears to my eyes. If she had not been found, she likely would not have survived the night. That’s why I do this— to help bring people home.”
Denise Blackman is vice president of CARDA, an all-volunteer 501(c)3 organization dedicated to training, certifying, and deploying search dog teams to assist with the search for missing persons. CARDA is funded 100 percent by contributions. Click on the PayPal link on the website, CARDA.org, or the California Rescue Dog Association Facebook page, to help.
Two Success Stories
For those involved in search-and-rescue deployments, the payoff is when things go right, though veterans cherish the relationships they develop through teamwork with their K9 pals. Here, CARDA’s Carol Shapiro relays two memorable jobs.
Capri Finds the Missing Persons
Missing children are a special emergency to most of us in the California Rescue Dog Association.
So when the call came late at night for a missing 1½-year-old and her grandmother, K9 Capri and I headed out the door.
Grandma had been off her meds and the child was barefoot. It was winter in Northern California.
Our assignment was to check the four-way intersections of the agricultural frontage road and the interstate. Capri wanted to cross the overpass and check out the McDonald’s, now closed. As we continued along the frontage road, we were moving south, always south.
The dirt road ended at fencing, barring our way across a small creek, but Capri wanted to continue.
She was whining and pulling in her harness. The problem was that there was nowhere else to go, except the hubcap zone on the southbound interstate.
At midnight, there’s still some traffic, and I didn’t want to be there. I followed her several hundred yards, and then tried to take her to the edge of a golf course. When she balked at that, and returned to the freeway, two deputies with lights and sirens were assigned to us, and slowed traffic for us.
After a short while, I balked. I told the commander at base camp that I believed the missing pair had gotten into a car and gone south on the freeway. I asked to be re-assigned to another area.
My next assignment was to check the next four on-ramps on the freeway, this time with the two police cars with us.
When Capri insisted on getting on the southbound ramp and continuing on the freeway, the deputies, nearly joking, told me to sit in the passenger side and just hold her leash out the window. She was that determined.
I notified the incident commander again of my dog’s behavior. This was a long shot; I’ve been told for years that dogs can’t follow a car-trail.
IC notified the police department in the town south of us to look for the missing pair.
They found both of them, alive and well, in the all-night McDonald’s. They had hitched a ride, and Grandma apparently wanted to return to the home where she had lived before coming north to live with her daughter.
Capri, I believed you. Rest in peace, my love.
Regal Solves a Murder
The call came out of the blue, and from an agency I didn’t expect. The financial fraud division needed a cadaver dog to search a local backyard. A gentleman had come into some money back in June and hadn’t been seen since. Some alleged friends of his had been spending unusual amounts of money buying new cars, a boat, and re-landscaping their mother-in-law’s backyard.
My K9 search partner, Regal, a male German shepherd, was 5 years old at the time. He was certified in wilderness area search, land and water cadaver. He already had several water recoveries to his credit. I trusted him completely.
The backyard was about as big as a postage stamp. A new sod lawn had been put down in July. This was October. The plum tree had been cut down completely, leaving only a two-foot stump. When I asked Regal to search, he took about five minutes to get near the tree, pawed at it a little bit, and ran back to me with a strong bark alert. I turned to the deputy and asked, “Do people bury people in their mother-in-law’s backyard? Because that’s what he’s telling me.”
As the deputies began to dig, a square cement pattern was emerging. Crime scene investigators were on the way to our location.
Turns out, the missing person’s friends had killed him. When the suspect in custody was told a dog was searching the yard, he confessed. He and his friend had killed the man, placed him in a picnic cooler, dug a deep six-foot hole, covered it in concrete, and placed a new sod lawn over the top.
Regal earned a steak that night—and a big hug. He did his job.
Carol Shapiro is also affiliated with CARDA, often assisting with public relations requests, and is a veteran of search and rescue operations.
Main article photo by: Photo of Tazer by Carol Shapiro