Summer vacation sometimes means extra work for a team of search dogs in Arkansas that are asked to find hikers who've gone missing or people who may have drowned.
A wooded area of Burns Park in North Little Rock is one of several sites used by volunteers dedicated to training their dogs to find missing persons. Present for the training on a hot Sunday afternoon earlier this month were Donna Waugh, Mike Cope, Terri Alpe, Jason Woods and Kimberly and Hugh Wright with their dogs John D, Jude, Brandi, Lucy, and Finn.
The team also includes T.J. Collard and 13-year Dominic, who don’t bring dogs but instead act as flankers, running alongside the dogs looking for potential dangers during searches, or hiding themselves in the woods to act as missing persons during training.
Donna Waugh, president of the American Scent Dog Association, leads the group through weekly training sessions on a variety of search and rescue scenarios. For this session she’s brought her dog John D and she’s having the group practice two common occurrences: finding a living missing person and finding the body of a deceased person.
“While we do things like cold case forensics where we know we’re looking for a body, if we have a missing kid we use the scent of the person who’s missing or we can give them a scent that says go find cadaver material. We’re going to practice both of those. Our dogs also do water recoveries from a boat,” said Waugh.
Lost hikers and drowning victims are unfortunately more frequent during the summer months. Waugh said the dogs, whose scent glands are so precise that they can detect smells at parts per trillion, can often find the scent of a body that’s underwater because tiny bubbles carrying the scent make their way to the surface.
Terri Alpe estimates she and her dog Brandi have been on more than 20 searches in the six years she has been with the team. Alpe says searching comes naturally for the dogs, so the weekly training isn’t needed as much by the dogs as their handlers.
When asked why the dogs needed to train so frequently, Alpe said, “They don’t. We do. It’s more about reading your dog and it’s harder to do. You think you know your dog and it’s sometimes like, you see a head turn, that’s easy to see. But there’s just so many things to reading your dog and the more you train the better you get at it.”
Most of the dogs on the team are mixed breeds that have been rescued from area animal shelters. And all the dogs at this training, except the team’s newest member Finn, are credited with at least one find. The most recent finds were earlier this year when Mike Cope’s dog Jude, found the body of man who’d committed suicide, then a week later Jason Woods and his dog Lucy found a 9-year old boy who’d gotten lost in the woods near Mayflower.
“We started out by scenting on an object that came from the house that belonged to the kid and smelled like the kid,” said Woods, “then we told Lucy to ‘Go find him,’ and she went through the forest. It was an area that was really dense because a tornado had gone through and not everything that had been cleared out, so it was kind of hard to navigate.”
The late night search was successful, which earned Lucy a special tag for her collar that lets officials know she’s gotten a find. Ironically, getting lost in dense woods or the dark of night while on a search is a very real possibility, so the dogs are also trained to lead their handlers back to the starting point of the search.
“Every one of our dogs knows, ‘Take me home," said Waugh, "he’s got a scent of where we started.” She explained once John D had located the cadaver-scented object being used during the training, “so he’s going to get us home.”
To avoid complicating or interfering with potential criminal investigations, the team only responds to requests from law enforcement officials. And neither the individual owners, nor the organization receive any payment for their services. The reward of reuniting loved ones or helping bring closure for families is enough to keep the group committed to training in all sorts of weather and being constantly on-call.
The dogs, on the other hand, thrive on the praise of their handlers and choice treats like the chicken or lobster bits they get after a successful find in training.