By Jeff Duewel of the Daily Courier Video about the K9 team available at the Daily Courier
WILLIAMS — The day before search and rescue dog training, Denise Sager walked up a forested trail outside Williams and left a tell-tale human scent among the leaves, twigs and grass.
The next morning, she wiped a piece of gauze on her skin in a few places, hopped in a car, rolled up the windows, and went to the end of her jaunt of the previous day.
Now Winston, Ann McGloon's Sussex spaniel, had to see about finding her, after a few sniffs of the gauze.
He's a certified trailing dog, one of three main branches of search dogs, the others being air scent for more general searches and cadaver dogs. Some dogs are certified in more than one discipline.
Winston, six other dogs and five trainers were training as members of Josephine County's Search and Rescue K9 unit, a vital part of the all-volunteer organization. Dogs can smell 50 to 100 times better than humans, and can save lives with their noses.
All of the radios, dog care, vests, gas, veterinarianbills, leashes, kennels and other costs come right out of their pockets, as do the dogs themselves, purebreds often running $1,000 or more.
"We're not alone in this," said Monica McFadden, who lives in Jacksonville but volunteers for Josephine County's SAR. "Everyone in SAR is getting all of their own gear."
A recent $2,000 grant from the American Kennel Club has helped the cause. They'll use the money to pay for professional trainer Bart Wilson of Florida to instruct them for a few days, hopefully this fall.
Wilson specializes in a method that helps trainers interpret their dogs' actions more timely and accurately, McGloon said.
"All dogs are great at finding people," McFadden said. "What takes them awhile is how to tell us things."
Winston, a liver-colored, sort of muscled-up version of a Cocker spaniel, made an important find on a wet night in May 2011, when 92-year-old Alzheimer patient Ruth Selles disappeared from her home on Averill Drive near the Rogue River. She was out in the wet and cold for two or three hours, and Winston found her within 15 minutes.
"He got real animated, and I heard this voice, 'Who's there?'" McGloon said. "She was in some blackberries and ivy behind a fence, piling more blackberries on herself" to hide.
On this training day, the stakes were far lower.
Winston, on a 30-foot leash, led McGloon on a sortie through the forest and within an hour popped out on the gravel road only about 100 feet from where Sager was hiding, after a 900-yard search. The dog had never been there before, so it was a blind search.
"For the age of the trail, he did great," McGloon said.
"He was dead on most of the time," added Lynda Spangler, another trainer that day.
The air-scent dogs are trained to move in concentric circles, and are not leashed. Their main job is eliminating areas, narrowing the search.
It takes more than a year of training for dogs to be certified, and their owners must become certified search and rescue volunteers first. They also train 20 to 30 hours a week on their own time, and it's not unusual to go on two or three real searches a month, all over the region.
"In order for them to be reliable, that's what it takes," McFadden said. "We owe that to the people we're looking for."
Former firefighter-emergency worker Doug Hathaway has a wire-haired pointing Griffin named Piper. In fact, many search dogs are the hunting breeds. McFadden has a couple of golden retrievers, as does Sager. Hathaway said it's a challenge to get them to focus on sniffing out humans instead of birds, but it's all fun for the dogs.
"They just love doing what they do," Sager said. "You can see the joy on their faces."
"For the most part, they're just like your family pet, except the dogs that really excel at this work are very high-drive dogs," Hathaway said. "If we miss even one or two training sessions, you can just tell."
After training or a successful search, each dog has its own reward, in Piper's case a Frisbee to fetch and for Winston, hot dogs to eat.
"They know there's going to be a big party at the end and everyone's going to be congratulated," Hathaway said.
This day's routine took more than three hours, including driving and training.
"It's a way to give back to the community," Hathawaysaid. "None of us are the couch potato personalities. We've all done something in past careers that was public service oriented.
"If we can find one person, everything we do is worth it," Sager said.