Bean, an energetic female back Labrador, bounded through the brush at Banner Forest near Southworth, following the scent of someone hiding beside a tree.
Meanwhile, Harley, a German shepherd, had his nose to the air, sniffing out a subject concealed somewhere in the thick vegetation of the park.
These canines weren’t taking a casual stroll with their owners during a recent Saturday morning. They were all business at the park. The dogs were undergoing one of their weekly training sessions in preparation for when the need to locate a missing person arises.
Bean and Harley belong to Kitsap County Search Dogs, a volunteer group that assists law enforcement in searches around the Northwest. In many cases, their work has been essential in saving lives. The certified search and rescue dogs have foraged through dense bush and traversed steep hillsides to help locate a lost hiker and trekked through neighborhoods to track down a senior citizen who wandered from home and got lost.
“Dogs have a much sharper smell, sight and hearing than we do,” said Kathy Murphy of Kingston, who is Bean’s owner and handler. “Way back before they started sleeping on our beds, they had to hunt and provide their own food. Training the dogs is just taking advantage of their hunt instinct.”
Search dogs operate on the “scent theory,” the 15-year search and rescue volunteer said prior to the training session. “The human body sheds skin cells – like 30,000 a second. What your diet is, hygiene products you use, and your genetics all create your unique scent. That is what the dogs find and follow.”
As people walk around, their scent — actually created by shedding skin cells — can fall to the ground or rise into the air. Scent travels in various ways, which can make detection difficult for the search-and-rescue dogs, she explained.
For example, if someone walks through a field during a rainstorm, the scent can be pushed to the ground. That can require the dog to find the exact path of the missing person. In hot weather, an individual’s scent can rise in the warm air above the level of the dog’s nose or fall to the ground and quickly evaporate. Also, thick brush acts like a wall and prevents the scent from traveling far. When a person crosses a creek, the scent can fall on the water and be carried away, much like a stick floating downstream.
Types of searches
The Kitsap group assists law enforcement in a variety of searches. A common one involves helping to find an elderly individual with dementia who has walked away from their residence. In some cases, the senior who recently moved was trying to find their old residence, Murphy noted.
Canines are also called into action when a severely depressed person disappears after leaving behind things they would normally take, such as their ID, wallet or cell phone. Those searches are nerve-wracking, Murphy admitted, because there is an urgency to locate the person before they possibly act on suicidal thoughts.
Searches can also involve an unhappy child who runs away. “Sometimes we have found them hiding in a cabinet in the house. Other times we find them out in the woods,” the dog handler said. During searches, the dogs wear collars equipped with a bell and GPS device to allow the handler to track their dog’s location.
Four-legged members of the search and rescue group were called into action 32 times last year, with 10 of those instances taking place in Kitsap. When called into service out of the county it often is to track down lost hikers.
Sgt. Andy Aman, a search and rescue coordinator for the Kitsap sheriff’s office, gives the dogs high marks.
“Not only are they good at what they do, they also get good results with their animals. [The dog handlers] spend hundreds, if not thousands of hours training and practicing with these animals,” Aman said
Over the years, the nonprofit has participated in significant searches, including surveying buildings damaged by the Port Orchard tornado in 2018 and following the Bremerton Motel 6 hotel explosion in 2015. Several local canines assisted recovery efforts after the Oso mudslide in 2014.
Dogs best suited for rescue work, Murphy observed, are those that can traverse a variety of landscapes They typically are a “working breed” – Labrador retrievers, German shepherds, golden retrievers and border collies. Dogs often join the team after they reach maturity, then usually serve until they reach the age of 10. “You also want dogs that are interested in people and are friendly,” she said.
Unlike police dogs that locate and are aggressive in taking down fleeing suspects who may have weapons, a search dog will likely give kisses to the people they find, she added.
Training search dogs
A search dog undergoes an average of 18 months of training to be certified in one of three categories. An “area” dog looks for any human in a designated area. A “trailing” canine seeks out a specific person after getting the subject’s scent from an article of clothing or a recent place the person was at, like a car seat. A “human remains detection” dog is trained to pinpoint the location of a deceased person.
The dogs undergo weekly training where they practice sniffing out subjects. “Hiders” are volunteers who conceal themselves until discovered. Sessions take place in a variety of settings – from warehouses and school campuses to vehicles and wooded areas. “We want the dogs to get the idea they are not always looking for someone under a bush but may be looking for someone trying to hide behind a door or in a vehicle,” she said.
The one who learns most during training is not the dog but the handler, who must learn to read the dog’s body language. “You are trying to recognize the dog’s behavior when it’s ‘in scent.’ How does it hold its ears? What is it doing with its tail? Maybe they cock their left ear when they are in the woods but when they are in a maintenance yard, they don’t do anything with their ears.
“There will be a subtle difference in how the dog carries themselves when they are ‘in scent’ of a human versus the scent of a squirrel. You are imprinting that in the handler’s brain so when they see behavior during an actual search, they can interpret it.”
Search and rescue pays dividends for dogs and handlers. “A search is really a game for the dogs,” Murphy explained. “When you are getting ready to search, you jazz them up by saying, ‘Are you ready to go? You can do it!’ Then you send them off.”
A dog’s reward is getting to interact with their handler and getting tons of praise, she said. Bean’s paycheck is getting to play. “She will do anything for her squeak toy,” Murphy smiled.
For Murphy and the group’s other dozen or so handlers, putting in countless hours of training is worth it when they are able to aid others. “It’s very satisfying to have a skill that can help when a family is having the worst day of their life. And to be able to do it with your dog is even better,” Murphy said.
Even when a search has a sad ending, the effort can provide a sense of relief for a family. “At least the family doesn’t have to wonder about all of those questions you have when you lose someone, like what happened to them? Is the person going to show up one day? When you are able to help provide those answers, it’s really significant,” she said.
Note: Kitsap County Search Dogs is always looking to expand its team. Anyone interested can go to kitsapsearchdogs.org.