Search dog makes unexpected rescue on a cold night

dkelly@adn.comFebruary 15, 2014 

Echo, a search and rescue dog in training, with her handler Jayme Schroeder. The pair made an unexpected rescue early Wednesday morning, February 12, 2014 near the University Lake dog park.

JILL MISSAL

A search dog in training made what her handler described as an unexpected rescue this week, possibly averting an exposure-related injury near an Anchorage trail.

Echo, a 3-year-old mixed-breed husky from Bethel, has spent the last two years training with the Backcountry Alaska Rescue K-9 team, or BARK-9. The team trains dogs for wilderness search and avalanche rescue.

Her handler, Jayme Schroeder, 26, works the night shift as a pediatric nurse at Alaska Native Medical Center. The back of his pickup is outfitted with a full-sized bed and canopy, which is where Echo stays while Schroeder is at work.

At night, if he can, he leaves work and takes Echo through the University Lake dog park near the medical center. Around 1 a.m. on Wednesday, the two set out on the loop trail. It was about zero degrees.

Schroeder noticed that Echo was acting funny. She kept smelling something and Schroeder wondered if a moose was nearby.

She ran ahead on the trail, which wasn't unusual. But then she came back and barked -- something she only does for search practice.

"Show me," Schroeder told her, and she sprinted ahead.

Echo led Schroeder to a man lying spread-eagled on his back just off the trail. At first Schroeder thought the man was dead. He appeared to be in his mid-30s and was wearing jeans, a T-shirt and an unzipped jacket, Schroeder said. He was wearing just one shoe.

Echo was barking excitedly. When Schroeder reached the man, he started shaking him and yelling, trying to wake him. As the man stirred into consciousness, Schroeder helped him sit up. His armpits were warm but his hands were cold, Schroeder said.

He turned briefly to praise Echo for the discovery, part of his job as a dog handler, and then helped the man to his feet. Over the quarter-mile walk to the hospital, the man stumbled and mumbled his words, and appeared to be intoxicated, Schroeder said.

When they reached the emergency room, Schroeder handed him off to the triage unit. It was the last Schroeder saw of him. The next 10 minutes he spent playing with Echo, to reinforce that she had done something right.

"If she wasn't trained for it, I don't know if she would have come back and alerted me," Schroeder said. He said he was already on a different trail back to the hospital and would not have seen the man otherwise.

An emergency room supervisor reached Saturday at the hospital said she could not immediately confirm a record of the incident, and could not say what happened after Schroeder left the man at the ER. She did say that it's fairly routine for the hospital to treat people matching the condition of the man described by Schroeder.

But BARK-9 unit leader Jill Missal said it was "incredibly unusual" for a search dog to find and report a person when she wasn't actively searching for someone.

"We do tend to see exposure injuries and deaths in Alaska during these tough winters," Missal said. "I really feel like Jayme and Echo probably prevented another one of those occurrences."

At least two people have been found dead outdoors since the start of February. Both were discovered by dog walkers in the Chester Creek trail area, police said.

On Feb. 1, a woman walking her dogs west of 19th Avenue and C Street spotted the body of 39-year-old Thomas Evans lying in the creek.

Then, on Thursday, a dog walker called to report a body lying near Ingra Street and East Fireweed Lane, about a mile away from where Evans was found. Police said that according to the caller, the body was frozen.

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