Specially trained dogs played important role in North Pond recovery
When a bulletin goes out on a missing person or a potential death, Summit County law enforcement knows the first step is to call in the big dogs.
Particularly in the early goings of a disappearance case, canines trained to track human scent are a key tool in a search plan. In the case of the suicide at North Pond in Silverthorne earlier this week, man’s best friend was one of the first on the water. A whimper, a bark or the eager wag of a tail, and the water rescue team is alerted that they’re getting close.
“They’re absolutely invaluable,” said Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons of the four-legged sleuths. “If you look at the recent search on the pond, the dogs hit in the area where we recovered the decedent. We would have had to search that whole lake end to end had we not had the dogs to help us narrow our search.”
These cadaver-detecting dogs are a resource available through the Summit County Rescue Group, and, like the Search & Rescue units, all are volunteers. While not all in this field belong to its primary organization, Search and Rescue Dogs of Colorado, or SARDOC, many called throughout the state for its average of 50 to 60 calls per year are members.
“Some people think we’re out for the glory,” said handler Andrea Reller, “but we’re really not. We just believe in the dogs, and they really can find people out in the wilderness.”
Reller, who lives in Silverthorne, was one of two dog owners put on the North Pond case. She has been involved in this kind of work for almost three decades. Because her husband is a member of Summit County Search & Rescue, lending the services of 6-year-old Recco, a golden retriever, and a 7-year-old Labrador named Race, was an easy decision.
“They’re our dogs, they’re our pets, they’re family dogs,” explained Reller. “But from their training from the beginning, they know when it’s work time. When the backpack comes out and they get their harness on, they know all of a sudden that they’re working, and that’s it. It’s like this changeover, and they do know that. So they already have this kind of different life that they live, and they absolutely love it.”
Be it in the wilderness, under snow from an avalanche or even underwater, these air-scent finders are capable of picking up the trail of someone who otherwise cannot be found. It doesn’t mean they’ll always get to the bottom of it and locate the individual, but, as FitzSimons called it, “it’s a piece to the puzzle.”
“It’s just like any search,” said Marcia McMahon, who was also on the North Pond hunt, “every resource is helping. You’d never find the person if everybody didn’t contribute. It’s just whose lucky day is it to make the find?”
McMahon, coming up from Fairplay in Park County, is the owner of Border collies Maui, 9, and Yinnie, 4. She said there’s no special quality that makes one breed of dog better than another — mutts often make great rescue animals — they just need to develop a good relationship with their owners and have both endurance and a strong prey drive.
Sheep-herding types and bloodhounds are often naturals, as well as those with slightly larger noses, but it’s the time put into the training that usually matters most, and it’s that demand that first drew her to the craft now 17 years ago.
“I used to race sled dogs and I wanted to do something a little brainier and a little more challenging,” she said. “So I definitely got what I asked for.”
In the early stages of training, puppies are socialized and familiarized with different surfaces and any number of noises, so they’re able to adapt to changing surroundings.
“We try to do stuff, so they’re not really spooked or scared, and they’re used to things like helicopters, ATVs, horses,” said Reller. “Whatever we can do, we just try to introduce them to it, so it’s not something that freaks them out.”
From there, before a dog ever gets out on the water in a raft or gears up for a snow expedition, they play games. The activity of choice? Hide-and-seek, of course. Whether around the house or out hiking on a trail where they’re being coached on putting their noses down, the common children’s pastime is an effective way to school the dogs on what they’ll be doing out in the field.
“The training ends up where if they find the person,” said Reller, “they’re taught to come back to us and then lead us back into the person. So the games start little, and then you just build on it, build on it to keep introducing variables. We do try to keep it really fun, for us, and for them.”
To keep these pooches dialed in, training is maintained at least once a week after they’ve turned 2, when most are ready and certified for dry-land forest searches, with other disciplines such as avalanche and water typically taking fully a couple years later. The use of a reward such as a toy or playing around afterward is also a strong motivator.
Now, how successful dogs are in finding subjects is a matter of perspective. True, they don’t always locate what they’re after by way of an article of the person who’s lost, say, a sock for instance, but handlers say it’s a dog’s ability to aid in the process of elimination that’s just as important as the actual find.
“It’s not wrong if you don’t find anything,” said Reller. “A lot of times, it’s a matter of ruling out areas as opposed to saying, ‘We’ve found them.’ So, if we can say, ‘Nope, you don’t need to go there, we didn’t get anything’ … and we have another one where stuff’s concentrated, then the search managers can say, ‘Guess what, we’re coming here.’”
Shifting conditions — including the time a person or body has been in a location, the wind and the depth of a barrier — are all factors. With water searches like that of the North Pond operation, the amount of silt and weed undergrowth, combined with the water’s temperature and undercurrent, can either pool or spread out the scent.
“They’re just looking for anything human that comes up from underneath,” said McMahon. “If (the scent) is in a small bay that’s kind of really protected and has a lot of vegetation, then yeah, it’s a lot harder than in an open-water situation. Cold (temperatures) tend to suck the scent down, and then the underwater current will push it along, so it might come up in a different spot.”
Success for these dogs isn’t always the most desirable outcome. However, the opportunity to assist authorities in solving a case is what keeps them coming back.
“It’s what we work hard for,” said Reller, “so when we have a chance to do it, it’s great. We’re glad to be here to be able to help.”
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