Of all the occupations in the world, some take a special breed of person. Doctors are forced to heal some of the goriest tragedies witnessed, while police officers deal with some of the worst people on the planet. But what about those who don’t get a reality TV show?
“I’ve been in search and rescue since 2000. I am originally from Joplin, where I had a K-9 cadaver search and rescue team,” said Chel Fletcher, Firefighter for the Elsberry Fire Protection District, Paramedic and K-9 Handler. “I moved up here and joined MRC (Missouri Region C K-9 Division), where basically we handle any kind of missing person call, whether it be live, dead, water, land, disaster, doesn’t matter; wilderness, anything.”
A cadaver dog, which approximately 90 percent of the calls she said they receive require cadaver dogs, require two years to train.
“I use the analogy that a K-9 working dog, for a police department, only takes 14 weeks for a patrol dog, where it takes two years to train our dog,” said Fletcher. “This is because they have to [find people], basically from birth to 100-years-old and everywhere in between.”
Fletcher said all of it has a different smell and they have to know all of it; verses water, buried or even being encased in cement. When someone hangs himself or herself, their adrenaline is probably going, so they’re putting off a different scent than just dying of old age.
“These dogs can smell 100,000 times better than a human,” said Fletcher. “Another analogy I like to use is that when you or I see a chef salad we say, ‘mmmm, that smells like a salad.’ When they smell a chef salad, they smell the cheese, the tomatoes, the lettuce; they can decipher every piece of that salad, where we just smell the salad, they can tell you everything that’s in it.”
It’s similar to a case Fletcher said she just worked on, where approximately 270 people walked over this person and never saw or smelled a thing. However, their dogs took them right to the person.
“That’s just because they can smell that much better than we can,” said Fletcher. “Even if we’re only lying there 24 hours or if we’re alive the dog’s can smell us and sense it way before we could even imagine.”
It definitely takes a different breed of person to do what it takes to be a K-9 handler for a search and rescue team. Some have used the analogy that the only difference between a search and rescue trainer and handler verse Jeffrey Dahmer, is that the trainer does eat what’s in the refrigerator.
“We do everything that’s legal,” said Fletcher. “It’s a matter of getting in with the right group, learning the right stuff and there’s lot’s of people out there, who say that’s what they do, but there is huge difference from saying it and actually doing it; the proofs in the pudding.”
However, Fletcher is not alone and has a wide array of resources at her disposal; mainly Pat Horn, Team Leader for MRC and Captain for the Elsberry Fire Protection District.
“We are both in emergency services, Horn, myself and our team are all made up of firefighters, EMS, police, forensic anthropologists, forensic professors; we all have that mentality,” explains Fletcher. “It also comes along with the fact that we deal with dead people everyday just because of what we do everyday professionally, so we’re used to seeing it.”
Fletcher went on to say that she and Horn, as well as the other members of the team love dogs and helping people.
“I think Horn started out training duck dogs as a teenager. I started out just because my dad was a police officer and because it’s always been something I wanted to do,” said Fletcher. “I later found out that I didn’t much like the K-9 aspect of it, but because I work as an EMS, I liked the search and rescue aspect of it and it blossomed from there.”
Horn said he got his start approximately 20 years ago, when he trained under a gentleman by the name of Andy Redman, who was with the Connecticut State Police and was responsible for the first cadaver dog program in the United States.
“After training under him and a few other people I brought all the knowledge back and used it teach people here in the St. Louis area,” said Horn. “I had a dream of having a rescue dog in every fire station in St. Louis and now over a dozen places using these types of dogs. If a building collapses or they get a house that burns down and they can’t find people in it, the dog goes right in, finds them and firefighters get them out. It’s grown tremendously over the years and the training never stops.”
Horn went on to say how these animals never cease to amaze him with what they can do with their nose. Plus, he said it’s also kind of fun.
“There are two kinds of alerts with dogs. If a regular dog came up to you right now, how would he greet you? He would lick your hand. It’s the same thing; it’s a natural alert. Now the trained alert is what we have to use if we are ever summoned to testify in court,” explained Horn. “Now there is a difference between training an animal using dead animals and people. We as humans, because we’re trained that way, can tell you that if there were two things laid out in front of you, blindfolded, we could tell you the difference.”
According to Horn, these dogs will actually avoid dead animals because they’ve been trained not to do anything with a dead animal. One example Fletcher gave was the tornado that took place in Joplin.
“There was so much rotten meat, dead animals, everything, but they would only find the human. So there is a distinct difference and these dogs know the differences,” said Fletcher. “Not all dog teams train as well. We have a set of standards we certify under, but we will train above that just so we know when the dog comes time to certify, that they will pass.”
Horn added it’s a piece of cake for them because they train harder than they’re supposed to.
So how does one find a person lost in water? According to Horn, the scent still comes out of the water and they are trained to find the scent, whether in the water or above the water. If standing near the bank of the water, the dog will run around the bank and as soon as they catch the smell of the person, they will go out to the source of the smell and swim a circle over the top of it. When in a boat, doing a grid, the dog will hit their paw on the boat; some will get so excited that will actually bail out and try to swim over the top of it. You may even see them trying to bite the water, which is another indication and it depends on the dog.
When looking for a missing person the trainers will use a play method. By finding the person the dog learns that it will get to play a game, such as tug of war. This gives the dog more of an incentive to do their job. After they become certified, they will stay in the spot, where the person was located and bark until the trainer arrives; this is a method used by air scent dogs.
The dogs seen on TV smelling a rag or something belonging to a person are called scent discriminative dogs, such as bloodhounds. These dogs can take a scent article, like that off of a shirt, shoe, a car door, or whatever. They will smell it and off they go. However, one myth to be corrected is that when a person sees the bad guy running away on TV and the dog is chasing and barking is a fallacy. According to Horn, the bad guy would not hear the dog, until it finds its person.
“You have no clue that they are coming to get you,” said Horn. “They work methodically and the bloodhounds may be better in some parts because they take all those wrinkles and those ears and kind of filters the smells off the ground.”
Although they may not have their own reality show, the work of a search and rescue team is essential for the success of finding missing people.
For more information about the program or how to help visit http://mrck9.com.
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