Leaders of the Pack: Dogs train to use noses, paws to find the lost

Arko successfully completes his training, having found the person hiding on his first day. (Photo by Amy Phelps)

PARKERSBURG — Most training days don’t bring this level of excitement. But for the dogs of the K9 Emergency Assistance Search Teams, this is a prime time to get a tasty treat or score a chomp or two on their favorite toy, for a job well done.

The excitement is palpable as the dogs are unloaded from their crates as they await their turn to train — a sort of hide-and-seek game with their handlers and another volunteer in the organization. Barks are plentiful, as are tail wags.

All to do a job that might very well save someone’s life.

The all-volunteer non-profit organization was started by Amanda Ingraham, a local trainer, who runs her business, Band of K9s. The organization offers free use of canine emergency assistance search teams and training to local first responder and emergency agencies upon their request throughout the Mid-Ohio Valley. All qualified handlers and canines are trained and certified free of charge and readiness levels are maintained by the handlers.

The group trains every Sunday except the last one of the month, going to different locations throughout the Mid-Ohio Valley area, including Mountwood Park, Jackson Park, the Broughton Nature and Wildlife Area, the National Guard building, Veterans Park and more. They are trained in a variety of landscapes, including wooden, urban, shoreline and building searches. Scents can last for two weeks in the same area, so the venues are constantly changing.

Jay Flores gives Quincy his treat after a job well done during K9 EAST Training. (Photo by Amy Phelps)

There are about 15 regular volunteer teams.

“New people come out all the time and try it,” said Melissa Clarke, treasurer.

And some of the members are also veterans.

All varieties of dogs are part of the team, including several German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Australian Cattle Dogs, an English Setter, a Golden Retriever and most recently, a Burmese Mountain Dog. Most of the dogs are trained to do live searches, intending to help look for lost people, though some are also cross-trained to do human remains searches.

Arko, a German Shepherd, and his owner, Chandra Hannah, are new volunteers to the group, and are learning how to track on a long leash. The handler introduces the dog to the odor, said Ingraham, usually items from the person doing the hiding, and these scent items are put out about 5-10 feet apart along the way to where the person is hiding a short distance up a hill and into some trees.

Chaz Carr shows Theo, a dog trained to detect human remains, which van to check for the hidden scent. (Photo by Amy Phelps)

Hannah tells Arko a command, such as seek/locate/find, and then they wait to see what he does. Another volunteer goes along with Hannah and Arko, so he will be used to someone like a firefighter searching with them. Arko immediately takes off sniffing, also receiving treats along the way, so he learns to associate the treat with doing the tracking. He stops at the top of the hill, his head turns, and he sees his person, who is waiting with treats to reward him.

“Sometimes dogs get a little scared the first few times they find their person,” said Ingraham. Everyone tells Arko what a good boy he was, and he receives all of his treats, happily munching away. His job is done for today, and Hannah will go on to hide for another volunteer.

“Some dogs who have been skittish in the past get more confident doing the training,” said Ingraham. “It really teaches leash handling skills.”

Theo, a German Shepherd with a high drive, cannot wait to do his training. He is excited the moment he arrives with Chaz Carr, his owner. Carr and Theo can do searches for human remains, and their work and dedication has lead to them being able to work together off leash. Theo learns how to detect a small bit of bone, blood or tissue decay, so that a large amount will be much easier for him to find, said Carr.

On a small lead, Carr introduces Theo to a section of vans, presenting him with each one at a time, and showing him the area to check. Theo sniffs along them in turn, until he suddenly stops, dropping to the ground and sitting practically under one of the vans.

Zane, a young German Shepherd, awaits his time to train with his friend, Silas. (Photo by Amy Phelps)

“That’s a good boy!” says Carr, praising him and also throwing Theo his favorite ball/tug toy. Theo excitedly plays with Carr for a bit, and then reluctantly gives his toy back. But then the leash comes off, and he is immediately ready to do some free range work, sniffing along a complex for the hidden scent, with Carr giving him directions on where to look. He shortly finds the next scent, going from sniffing everywhere to dropping to the ground and sitting, and is thrown his toy again, jumping up with it, and then proudly carrying it back to his vehicle. He did a good job, especially because some dead animal matter was also found near where his scent was hidden. He checked it and then almost immediately found what he was looking for.

Jay Flores, and his black German Shepherd, Quincy, are up next, doing a longer live hunt into the surrounding woods and trail. Flores and Quincy are nationally certified, along with another member of the organization, and have attended the week-long training and certification process. Where Theo might have been more high energy, Quincy is very calm. He sniffs the bag of scent and immediately heads off into the woods, taking a direct route, nose up in the air, even as he tramples through mud, rocks and thorns, scrambling up a small embankment, making sure that every time his path crosses any kind of puddle, he walks through it.

“He loves water,” said Flores.

Flores said dogs are generally either ground or air scenters, and Quincy generally is air, though every so often he will put his nose down. Quincy might seem like he’s leading out in the middle of the path for no reason, but that’s not the case. He head snaps to the left, and he starts to dive right through another bunch of trees and rough terrain, and Flores leads him to a bit better of ground, and Quincy makes a beeline right for his person, who immediately says, “Good boy!” Flores gives him some special dog treats, and he is told what a good job he did. He even walks through all the puddles back to his car.

“You have to trust your dog,” said Flores. “If you second guess them, you’re wrong. Any time I’ve thought, no, they must have went left, and he wanted to go right, I was wrong. Trust your dog.”

Chaz Carr and Theo do some off-leash work during training exercises with K9 EAST. (Photo by Amy Phelps)

For those who might be interested in helping, volunteers can learn how to be an associate or active member with their dog, or become a volunteer to help with the searches without a dog. Equipment, supplies and other charitable donations are also welcome. For more information, contact k9eastteam@gmail.com or visit them on Facebook at K9east.

Amy Phelps can be reached at aphelps@newsandsentinel.com

Theo runs toward the smell he is detecting during his training exercise. He will celebrate with his favorite toy. (Photo by Amy Phelps)

Arko and his owner Chandra Hannah, take part in training exercises with K9 Emergency Assistance Search Teams. (Photo by Amy Phelps)

Quincy leads his owner, Jay Flores, into the woods searching for his hiding person as part of his training exercises with K9 EAST. (Photo by Amy Phelps)


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