If you've spent any time around any of the "working" dog breeds, you know how they look on the job: Ears pricked, eyes intent, every fiber of their body focused on the job at hand. The job could be almost anything: Running an agility course, herding livestock or saving your life. Because when it comes to finding lost people, search and rescue dogs have a tool we humans cannot hope to match: Their noses.
"If you see how observant we are with our eyes, dogs are the same way with their nose," explained Eeva Latosuo, one of several veteran search dog handlers with Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs who met last week on the Alaska Pacific University campus to demonstrate their search teams' capabilities. Emphasis on "team": The dog's extraordinary nose may do the finding, but it's the handler who steadies the dog, cares for it and ultimately guides the search strategy.
After a short talk Latosuo trekked into the woods, hiding so neither Don Brooks nor his 5-year-old Australian shepherd, Primer, would know where she was. It's like a double-blind medical study: You want to be sure the dog is actually using his nose to find the search subject, not following subtle clues from the handler.
Once Latosuo radioed back that she was in position, Brooks headed into the woods and gave Primer the command to search. At first the search looked random as Primer darted around like a ping pong ball, casting back and forth for the airborne scent cone Latosuo left behind.
As we followed Brooks through the woods, the purpose behind Primer's zig-zagging slowly became clear: Brooks was the hub of his dog's search pattern, with Primer coming back and "checking in" every so often, making eye contact or bumping Brooks' fingers with his nose before heading back out for another sniff.
Paul Brusseau, another Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs handler, came along to explain how the searches work. The organization typically responds to about 25 missions a year statewide, including searches for people who are lost, drowning and avalanche victims, and firearms or other possible evidence. The Alaska State Troopers decide which search resources, including Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs, should be deployed. Search activity varies by month, with more wilderness and water searches during the summer and mostly avalanche work during winter and spring.
If you're alert to subtle changes in the dog's body language, Brusseau explained, you can tell when the animal has gone from casting about for a scent to following one. Once Primer actually found Latosuo, he was anything but subtle. That meandering zig-zag turned into an arrow-straight dash back to Brooks, where Primer used his mouth to tag his favorite thing in the world: A well-worn pink rubber ball, hanging from a short cord on Brooks' belt.
Drug dogs, bomb dogs and cadaver dogs may have a more passive alert, sitting by their find. But search dogs use a much more active alert, a crystal-clear, highly personal signal that handler and dog have worked out between them. For Primer, it's hitting that ball. For Latosuo's dog, it's jumping up on the handler.
In both cases, once the dog has signaled the find to its handler, it "re-finds," running a straight path between handler and subject, over and over again, until the two are finally together. Once we found Latosuo, lounging between some small fallen trees, Primer received his reward: copious praise from both subject and handler, and the chance to play tug with that pink ball.
Then it was my turn to play search subject for Latosuo and her 7-year-old border collie, Sisu. In the distance came Latosuo's singsong calls of my name as she and Sisu searched. Then came the tink-tink-tink of Sisu's collar as she zigged and zagged through the quiet woods.
"If there's something out there to find, they're probably going to find it. But we spend an awful lot of time looking for things that aren't there," Brusseau said.
Once you've eliminated the likely places, the painstaking process of elimination may be the only viable search method -- even with a super-powered dog nose at your disposal.
It takes a village
Creating a mission-ready dog/handler team doesn't happen by accident. It takes about two years, start to finish, to certify in any of the search disciplines represented by teams of Alaska Search And Rescue Dogs: Wilderness, avalanche, tracking/trailing, cadaver and urban disaster. Handler and dog can expect to train specific search skills two to three times a week in addition to general bonding time and learning an array of obedience skills through voice and hand signals. Each team re-certifies in its given disciplines every two years.
It's that bonding time and deliberate practice in unusual environments a few times a year that helps Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs handle with aplomb circumstances that a typical family pet would never tolerate. They sit in loud, noisy helicopters and ride slung across their handler's shoulders during ski trips. "They know 'Dad's gonna take care of me here.' You can tell them to do just about anything, and they're going to do it," explained Brusseau.
Meanwhile, the humans have their own formidable skill set to master so they can be ready for anything: Orienteering, wilderness first aid, backcountry travel and wilderness survival.
Once certified, teams train together as often as three times a week, with different human partners taking turns being search subjects. Membership fluctuates, with about 20 volunteer handlers and about 15 credentialed search dogs, with two to five in training status. When I asked the handlers why they put in so much time and effort, their answers were deceptively low-key: Community service. My dog needed a job. I met other handlers and it seemed interesting.
"People come into this with different reasons and skill sets ... we try to build on that," explained Brusseau. "Working with dogs is pretty fun stuff ... you really do build a relationship you wouldn't build otherwise, because you rely on each other so much."
You also get to see just how remarkable your dog's nose is. An avalanche dog can do in 20 minutes what would take an organized probe line eight hours. Experts have said if a person had a dog's sense of smell, he could detect one teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water or sniff out one rotten apple in two million barrels.
Alaska Search And Rescue Dogs is not breed-specific, and just about every dog has the nose for the job. If you think you and your dog might make a good search team, keep in mind that temperament and physicality -- both yours and the dog's -- count for a lot. Dogs from the working and herding groups, retrievers and hounds usually excel at this sort of work.
A life-saving team
It's hard to determine which aspect of a handler's life is more extraordinary: The fact that she is willing to work so hard to be ready, or that she is willing to drop everything and head out to search for total strangers. The dogs may get the reward of time, attention and a favorite toy, but sometimes the handler's reward is a lot of hard work, inclement conditions and time away from home.
Brooks, Latosuo and Brusseau told the story of getting a call about a member of the Coast Guard who had gone missing in Kodiak on Christmas Day two years ago. He had fallen about 1,000 feet and not survived, but the searchers didn't know that.
"You try to deal with hope," Brusseau explained.
The handlers left their families, including Latosuo's mother who was visiting from Finland, and flew to Kodiak on a C-130, where they found the man and brought quick closure to the family and friends of the late Derek Winn Russell, 20, of Maine.
As I sat in the woods, listening to the tink-tink-tink of Sisu's collar as she zeroed in on my position, it was easy to understand how the hope works both ways. If I were lost in the woods or the mountains -- and I have been -- I would very much want a super-powered nose on my trail, guided by a steady human hand.
When Sisu found me, she spun on a dime and darted back to Latosuo, jumping up on her and then re-finding, darting back to check on me as if I were a lost lamb she'd told to stay put. She made the back-and-forth re-find trip three or four times before Latosuo was there, praising her and producing Sisu's reward for a job well-done: A soft, brightly colored frisbee.
Anchorage freelance writer Lisa Maloney tries to not get lost outdoors. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Learn more about Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs at asard.org.