When people go missing, these search and rescue dogs find them

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Greenville resident Nancy Jocoy and her trained search and rescue dog, a German shepherd named Beau. Photo by Will Crooks.

The call can come at any hour of the day. And when it does, Greenville residents Sarah Hey and Nancy Jocoy remain ready with their dogs on a leash to assist public safety personnel in finding lost and missing persons.

Hey, an independent marketing strategy and brand management consultant, and Jocoy, a senior quality engineer with the American Red Cross, are members of the South Carolina Search and Rescue Dog Association (SCSARDA).

Since 2003, the nonprofit has partnered with emergency response agencies across the Upstate and Western North Carolina to provide K-9 search and rescue services at no cost. There are eight dogs on the team, each owned by volunteers like Hey and Jocoy who are willing to drop everything at a moment’s notice to save lives.

Using their dogs’ keen sense of smell and natural desire to track scents, the two women and their teammates help authorities find Alzheimer’s patients who wander from home, follow the trail of lost hikers, and locate the bodies of drowning or murder victims.

“Dogs experience the world through their noses,” Hey said. “And it allows them to do amazing things.”

Experts estimate that a single search and rescue (SAR) dog can accomplish the work of 20 to 30 humans. In fact, dogs are outfitted with more than 200 million scent receptors and can pick up a scent from a mere handshake. But not all SAR dogs perform the same type of search.

Some dogs, for instance, specialize in following a trail of human scent. Others, like Hey’s 11-year-old Siberian husky, Brand, are air scent specialists that sniff for any human scent, from living persons or the recently deceased. And Jocoy’s dog, a 6.5-year-old German shepherd named Beau, is trained to detect human remains on land and water.

“There are some breeds that are more suited to the work than others. But I think many dogs can participate in search and rescue as long as they are obedient, attentive, friendly, and possess a strong desire to please,” Jocoy said. “SAR dogs must also be able to act independently from their handler and solve problems on their own.”

No matter their expertise, SCSARDA teams must complete rigorous training and pass annual certification tests before they can participate in search and rescue operations, according to Hey, who joined the group in 2009. It can take up to three years to train and certify a dog in trailing, search and rescue, or human remains detection.

“The most important step to training a SAR dog is getting them to associate human scent with something they want,” Hey said. “Dogs only work for a reward, whether it’s a game of fetch or tug of war. That’s why a handler has to associate that reward with each thing they want the dog to do – in this case, locate the human scent.”

She added that SAR dogs are also trained to obey basic commands, negotiate slippery surfaces and other terrain, and indicate the discovery of human scent by barking or scratching toward the person’s location.

Depending on their area of expertise, a dog may also be trained to find a person, return to their handler, and then lead the handler back to the person, or stay with the person and alert the handler by barking.

But training a dog to detect decomposing human remains is a drastically different process than training them for live searches, according to Jocoy. The dogs, for instance, must be trained at an early age to ignore live human scent and animal scent.

Jocoy, who has nearly 14 years of experience training dogs for search and rescue, uses a special set of tools to train “cadaver dogs” like Beau: human remains.

“Some of the things we search for include bones and bodily fluids, which are easier to obtain than most people think,” she said. “We order bones through online sites and ask for surgical donations. New moms even donate placenta sometimes.”

Like their dogs, SAR handlers go through rigorous training to become field-ready.

On average, a handler spends about 1,000 hours in training. Jocoy and Hey, for instance, spent about a year learning the basics of dog training, land navigation, search management, first aid, weather patterns, radio communications, map and compass skills, lost person behavior, crime scene preservation, and more.

“When people think search and rescue, I don’t think they realize how much the person has to learn. It’s not all about the dog. They’re just a tool. The handler has to know how to put the dog into position to pick up a scent,” Jocoy said.

She added that many teams continue to work hard to perfect their skills even after they are deemed operational. SCSARDA, for instance, requires its members to practice as a team once or twice a month. The sessions occur in all kinds of weather in a variety of environments, including buildings and forests.

Some of the organization’s members even travel across the country for training conferences and go through recertification every year. “Training a SAR dog requires a huge team investment, as well as the investment from the individual handler. In Brand’s case, I have received support and help from a wide variety of friends and family as well,” Hey said. 

Once a SAR team attains certification, they are on call 24/7 year-round. Dogs often accompany their handler to work and on vacation in case a call comes in from law enforcement authorities. 

SCSARDA volunteers have responded to hundreds of cases, both local and a few hours away, since 2003. The majority of the organization’s cases involve missing children, overdue hikers and hunters, and the recovery of human remains.

For more information, visit scsarda.org.

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