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Leading the pack

Search-and-rescue dogs trained to save lives

CLINTON, Iowa – Turning an 8-week-old puppy into a working dog takes dedication for both the animal and its trainer.

That job, conducted by Emergency K-9 Operations Inc. Search and Rescue, can take years of training before an animal is fully ready.

EKO-SAR is a team of professionally trained volunteers who perform search-and-rescue in addition to evidence and body recovery at no cost to the agencies or families involved.

The conditions they work in often include rough terrain, disaster areas or high-speed foot chases. For the animals and people involved, training is a never-ending process.

Once a week, for at least 6 hours, the team comes together, running through a series of obstacle courses and tracking exercises.

Last winter, husband-and-wife team Bill and Lois Hall set a mile-long practice track for K-9 Strider, one of the couple’s three certified search-and-rescue dogs.

Laying hot tracks simulates the scenario of a lost or missing person. Leaving the group, Bill started at a high-traffic area on a snowy and windy day, each of which poses a challenge. He wandered a mile, often zigzagging.

Each step was recorded with GPS technology. Back at base, a map on a laptop shows the path he took. Before Bill returned, he gave a signal to Lois via two-way radio.

K-9 Strider, ready to work, was wearing a GPS collar to track Bill's steps. Starting at a busy gas station, Lois placed a tissue, earlier held by Bill, to K-9 Strider’s nose, indicating whom to look for.

Despite the rough conditions, the dog found Bill within an hour, and the collar corresponded with the GPS transmission of his path.

The Halls are Clinton County sheriff's reserve officers. About 17 years ago, they met Mike LeBlanc at a 4-H event, where he was teaching kids tracking. That piqued the Halls' interest.

“I said, ‘Oh, now there is something I have always wanted to do!’,” Lois said. “So he taught me how to teach my dog how to track."

Since its official inception 15 years ago, the team has been deployed about 300 times. Some sites have been searched more than once, including one far from home – a high-profile missing persons case in Rainbow Falls Provincial Park in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Early on, the team worked a lot of criminal cases, which is dangerous for the handler and canine. The success rate for suspect chases was enormous.

As police agencies in the area grow their own K-9 units, EKO-SAR isn’t dispatched nearly as often.

During training, Mary Heinrich of Downers Grove laid out a cadaver recovery exercise for the dogs.

She tossed small jars containing human scent, including fragments of bone, blood, tissue or teeth, into a large, snowy field, being careful not to leave footprints leading up to the evidence.

Walking quickly, nose to the ground, K-9 Sorina stopped to look up only for a second to sniff the cool air. On the trail of a scent, she weaved along the open field. Within minutes, she circled a jar in a pile of snow and debris.

At more than 3 years old, the German shepard, one of six dogs on the Emergency K-9 Operations Team, tells Heinrich she’s found something.

Her stance becomes still and quiet as she lies beside a container holding a human tissue sample. She sets hers eyes on her handler, awaiting praise and a tug toy for a job well done.

Heinrich, who has volunteered for 19 years in this line of work, takes a trek of more than 4 hours each week to be part of the team. She met the Halls at a seminar, and before long she teamed up with them.

“Her dedication to this team is evident, and we are lucky to have her,” said Connie Heath, K-9 Vader’s handler.

The team does a lot of civic programs, and each canine is also a certified therapy dog. Some visit hospitals and nursing homes. Many work with schools, fire departments and Scouts, helping with badges on animals and the outdoors.

“We talk to these kids and tell them about rive safety," Heath said. “‘When you are out on the river, when our dog is on the river, you need to have a life vest, even if you can swim.’

“I tell them the story about the lifeguard we had to dig out of the river after he saved two people from drowning. ‘He hit his head and drowned.’ Their eyes get really big, and they realize it is important.”

She said the rewards far outweigh the struggles that the team faces.

“Sometimes it is really sad,” she said. “If you find a victim dead, it’s absolutely heart wrenching, but you think of the closure that you are bringing to the family, and they need that.

“But when you are looking for two lost girls and you find them, alive, it brings tears to your eyes. You hear, ‘Oh my god, we found them! They are safe.’ That's what gets you through the other cases.”

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