RICHLAND, Wash. — If you’re out one day hunting or wander off a hiking trail, a select group of volunteers may come to look for you. K-9 search and rescue teams spend countless hours training for just such an emergency.
German shepherd Kia lifts her nose in the air, sniffs, and takes off. Kia is searching for missing hikers — part of a training day at Central Washington’s Chamna Natural Preserve.
Her handler and owner Gina McNearney isn’t far behind.
“Get to work,” McNearney tells Kia.
The pair joined the Yakima County K-9 Search and Rescue team about 1.5 years ago. Kia is being trained to become a certified search and rescue dog this spring.
Today, Kia and McNearney are looking for two volunteers posing as missing hikers.
“You spend as much time doing this, they definitely become like your child, my best friend,” McNearney said.
Search and Rescue teams must volunteer at least 30 hours a year, not to mention at-home practice to help the dogs hone their skills.
All to come find you when you go missing.
Harry Visser is one of today’s volunteer missing hikers. Right now, search and rescue team member Barb Lee helps him hide behind brambles and in between several tree stumps, unseen from the winding path several feet away.
“Can you fit in between those to logs right there and sit there?” Lee said.
“Yeah,” Visser responded.
“Because the curve of the branch and everything will help hide you,” Lee said.
“Okay. I will get in there,” Visser said.
Visser has served as a missing hiker for the Yakima Search and Rescue team several times before. He’s hidden in the Cascades, in canyons, and now in the desert.
“I always got a book. Once in awhile it takes them awhile,” Visser said.
To find Visser, dog Kia is using a search method known as air scent. Lee said that’s the most common way of looking for a lost person.
“The missing hiker, when you send a dog out, they’re just looking for human scent. They’re going to go to whatever they find, and if they find somebody that is not lost, we reward the dog anyway and say, ‘Good job. You did great.’ And tell them to keep on working,” Lee said.
Kia’s nose leads her to several hikers, other dogs, and a tarp with human scent as she searches for Visser.
“Not it. Good girl. Find the next one,” McNearney tells Kia.
McNearney said one of the most difficult parts of search and rescue is to not outthink your dog. Dogs’ noses are 40 to 100 times more powerful than humans’ -– and they’re usually right when they signal that they smell someone.
Like onetime when a volunteer missing hiker was hiding in a tree near a creek, McNearney said. She thought the hiker wasn’t supposed to be in that area.
“That was the first place Kia went, right off the bat. But I called her off, which is something that you never want to do. Sure enough at the very end, that’s where she was. I should have trusted her to begin with. But it was a lesson: trust your dog,” McNearney said.
About an hour into this search, Kia finds the brambles where missing hiker Harry Visser is hiding.
She makes her way to the two stumps, strikes a Rin Tin Tin pose, and runs back to her handler.
“Good job. Show me, Kia,” McNearney said, as Kia signals that she’s found someone by touching McNearney’s hand.
During an actual search, most dogs don’t actually find the missing hiker. That’s because there are so many teams on the ground. Many dogs are actually eliminating search areas for the police — an important task.
McNearney said she can’t wait to get her dog Kia certified, so that she can start helping people.
“It will be very rewarding, especially to be able to finally go out with her,” McNearney said.
McNearney said all the effort put into training will be worth it to help find someone who’s gone missing.
Back at the base camp, several handlers head out to do another type of search: one for human remains. For training, the group uses placenta stored in glass jars.
Ruth Hanson is the Yakima County team leader. She said the group often gets asked: Why do this type of search? Hanson says the answer is simple: closure.
“So even though the lost hunter or hiker or whomever might not be alive anymore, if we can help locate that deceased person, then certainly it’s a little easier on the family,” Hanson said.
Lorraine McClean takes her dog Minx, a 7-year-old Australian shepherd, to find the fake remains, what the search and rescue team refers to as “stinky.”
There are five jars placed under cement blocks and wooden stumps, all hidden in a small area. This simulates animal predation, where small bones may have been scattered in an area.
“You see her close her mouth? She’s taking a deeper breath,” McClean said.
When Minx finds the “stinky,” she whines and sits down, looking over at McClean. McClean confirms she’s found what she’s looking for and rewards Minx with a treat.
“Good job, oh, good job. You’re the best little Aussie we’ve got on the team. Has nothing to do with the fact you’re the only Aussie,” McClean jokes. “Good girl. Ready? Back to work.”
Once Minx has found all five spots, she is rewarded with a squeaky ball.
“We’ve covered the ground pretty well. She seems to be picking up the old scent, so I’m going to call it,” McClean said.
In the last type of training for the day, dogs search using a method that’s known as trailing. This is the type of searches you most commonly see on crime dramas like CSI or Law and Order.
Dogs take a whiff of an item that belongs to the missing person and follow that trail of scent, eliminating all other human smells as they search. With this type of search dogs are on a leash. It’s often used to find missing children or senior citizens in an urban setting but can be used in the wilderness.
Donna Dill takes her German shepherd Tala to search for, once again, Harry Visser. The team jokes about using the same missing hiker multiple times.
“When we work with each other a lot, and we get lost a lot, sometimes the dogs give you that look like, ‘Really? He’s lost all the time,’” said Ruth Hanson.
Dill takes Tala to a trail on the reserve that Visser has walked before, so that she can pick up his scent.
Tala smells one of Visser’s hats that is kept in a zip locked bag, like evidence.
“Where’d he go?” Dill asks Tala, as she takes off on the trail.
About 10 minutes later Tala has found Visser hiding behind a boulder, his book in hand.
Visser gives Tala some snacks and throws a squeaky ball for her to fetch.
“Good girl. You found me,” he said.
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