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Most training days don’t bring this level of excitement. But for K9 emergency assistance search team dogs, it’s the perfect time to get a tasty treat or score a bite or two on their favorite toy, for a job well done.
The excitement is palpable as the dogs are unloaded from their crates waiting for their turn to practice – a sort of hide-and-seek game with their handlers and another volunteer from the organization. The barks are abundant, as are the wiggles.
All to do a job that could very well save someone’s life.
The all-volunteer non-profit organization was started by local trainer Amanda Ingraham, who runs her business, Band of K9s. The organization provides free use of canine emergency assistance search teams and training to local first responders and emergency agencies upon request throughout the Mid-Ohio Valley. All handlers and qualified dogs are trained and certified free of charge and readiness levels are maintained by handlers.
The group trains every Sunday except the last of the month, traveling to various locations in the Mid-Ohio Valley area including Mountwood Park, Jackson Park, Broughton Nature and Wildlife Area, National Guard Building, veterans park and more. They are trained in a variety of landscapes, including woodland, urban, shoreline, and building searches. Scents can last two weeks in the same area, so locations are constantly changing.
There are about 15 regular teams of volunteers.
“New people are coming out all the time and trying,” said Melissa Clarke, Treasurer.
And some of the members are also veterans.
All varieties of dogs are on the team, including several German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Australian Cattle Dogs, an English Setter, a Golden Retriever and more recently, a Bernese Mountain Dog. Most dogs are trained to perform live searches, with the aim of helping to search for lost people, although some are also trained to perform searches for human remains.
Arko, a German shepherd, and his owner, Chandra Hannah, are new volunteers in the group and are learning to follow on a leash. The handler presents the dog with the scent, Ingraham said, usually objects from the hiding person, and these scent objects are spaced about 5 to 10 feet apart along the path to where the nobody is hiding a short distance away on a hill and in some trees.
Hannah tells Arko a command, such as search/locate/find, then they wait to see what he does. Another volunteer accompanies Hannah and Arko, so he’ll be used to someone like a firefighter searching with them. Arko immediately takes the sniffle away, also receiving treats along the way, so he learns to associate the treat with the follow-up. He stops at the top of the hill, his head turns, and he sees his person, who is waiting for him with treats to reward him.
“Sometimes dogs are a little scared the first time they find themselves,” said Ingraham. Everyone tells Arko what a good boy he was, and he gets all his treats, munching happily. Her job is done for today, and Hannah will continue to hide for another volunteer.
“Some dogs that have been skittish in the past become more confident in training,” said Ingraham. “It really teaches leash techniques.”
Theo, a German Shepherd with a high level of training, is looking forward to his training. He is excited as soon as he arrives with Chaz Carr, his owner. Carr and Theo can search for human remains, and their hard work and dedication has seen them working together off the leash. Theo is learning to detect a small piece of bone, blood or tissue decay, so it will be much easier for him to find a large amount, Carr said.
On a small track, Carr introduces Theo to a section of vans, introducing him to each at a time and showing him the area to check. Theo takes turns sniffing them, until he stops abruptly, dropping to the ground and practically sitting under one of the vans.
“He’s a good boy!” Carr said, congratulating him and also tossing Theo his favorite ball/tug toy. Theo plays with Carr enthusiastically for a bit, then reluctantly returns his toy.
But then the leash comes off and he’s immediately ready to do some work on the loose, sniffing a complex for the hidden scent, Carr showing him where to look. He quickly finds the next scent, going from sniffing everywhere to dropping to the ground and sitting up, and is thrown his toy again, jumping with it, then proudly carrying it back to his vehicle. He did a good job, especially because dead animal matter was also found near where his scent was hidden. He checked it out and almost immediately found what he was looking for.
Jay Flores and his black German Shepherd, Quincy, are next, doing a longer hunt in the surrounding woods and trails. Flores and Quincy are nationally certified, along with another member of the organization, and have gone through the week-long training and certification process.
Where Theo could have been more energetic, Quincy is very calm. He sniffs the scent bag and immediately heads into the woods, taking a direct route, nose in the air, even as he stomps through mud, rocks and thorns, scrambling up a small embankment, ensuring that whenever his path crosses any sort of puddle, he walks through it.
“He loves water” said Flores.
Flores said dogs are usually scents on the ground or in the air, and Quincy is usually air, although occasionally he lowers his nose. Quincy may look like he’s leading the middle way for no reason, but he’s not. He turns his head to the left, and he begins to dive through another group of trees and rough terrain, and Flores leads him to somewhat better ground, and Quincy heads straight for his person, who immediately says, “Good boy!” Flores gives him special dog treats and is told how good a job he did. He even walks through all the puddles to his car.
“You have to trust your dog” said Flores. “If you guess them, you are wrong. Every time I thought, no, they had to go left, and he wanted to go right, I was wrong. Trust your dog.
For those who might be interested in helping, volunteers can learn to be an active partner or member with their dog, or volunteer to help with searches without a dog. Equipment, supplies and other charitable donations are also welcome. For more information contact [email protected] or visit them on Facebook at K9east.
Amy Phelps can be contacted at [email protected]