Search and Rescue Team

Building Trust

Carter Pell and his dog Luna with his father Jeremey.

A well-trained Search and Rescue (SAR) team is a remarkable sight to behold. The dog can evenly maneuver the most rugged terrains with the grace of a mountain goat all the while looking for a trapped or hidden human being.

The team, made up of the handler and their dog, display a strong bond of trust in one another. Center Grove sophomore Carter Pell understands this connection. He and his dog, Luna, increasingly build upon this bond in SAR training. Son of Jeremy and Lori Pell, Carter exemplifies and understands the importance of emergency responses and SAR work. “I have always thought it would be cool to have a search and rescue dog.”

While Carter enjoys typical teen activities – being with friends, going to CG basketball games and playing Xbox – he admits he enjoys his time with Luna. They train with the volunteer Indiana K9 Search and Recovery group under the direction of Leah Snyder. The volunteer group specializes in human remains recovery, scent-specific trailing, area search and water recovery.

As a 3-year-old Doberman Pinscher, Luna possesses an even temperament along with a high level of focus and desire for her toy, so much so that she will eagerly work in difficult conditions for hours simply for her toy. As with her breed, Luna is a highly driven, energetic and intelligent dog – all characteristics of an SAR dog.

SAR

Search and Rescue work can be long and tedious. Often done on the fly at the drop of a hat with little-advanced warning, it takes a finely refined team to handle the work. To gain this experience, the group trains three Saturdays every month, 10 months of the year – a major commitment for anyone, especially a teenager and his dog. According to Carter, many factors need to be engrained into a team before assisting in an SAR operation. Constant and repetitive training helps teams learn factors such as understanding each team member’s mannerisms and acknowledging how terrain and weather can affect a search.

Mannerisms

A well-defined team gains trust by learning each other’s unique mannerisms. As a simple illustration, when dogs focus on the scent, some dogs keep their nose to the ground while others lift their heads erect, shut their mouths and deeply inhale the scent. By the handler knowing this information, a search can go quicker and smoother when the minutes count.

Another mannerism deals with the handlers themselves. Describing an SAR, Carter says, when SAR canines work, they create a scent pool, which means they will go back and forth along a line many times determining what minute area contains the strongest scent. This back and forth movement takes time. Consequently, handlers need patience, so the dog can perform efficiently. Once the canine confidently locates the strongest scent, the dog will indicate the fact to the handler.

“How does the dog indicate?” you might ask. Some dogs like Luna immediately lay down. Others may sit, and still others may do what one dog did at training – take two steps back, turn around, sit down and look at the handler. “No matter how a dog indicates, a team must have trust in each other,” said Carter. “You do not want to rush the process because the scent might sit hidden underground, up in a tree or down in some brush by the water, depending on the terrain.”

Scent, Terrain and Weather

Scientists reference that human beings shed flakes of skin from their bodies at the rate of 500 million cells every day. “When people walk, run or move in any way, they shed skin cells,” Snyder said. “Attached to each cell is our individual scent, so when our skin cells flake off, our scent goes with it, which is what dogs smell in or on the ground, the air or the water.”

In the handler’s training, they must learn and understand how this scent can travel with the weather and terrain. For example, if the team is working up a hill and the handler notices the wind has carried the leaves away from the trees and down the hill, plus the dog seems to have lost the scent, the skin cells and the scent most likely drifted with or on the leaves. The handler can then guide the dog toward the leaves, hoping for a stronger scent pool for the dog to utilize.

Training

As mentioned earlier, this group trains for a variety of situations, but now Carter’s focus is the beginning training for a scent-specific trailing (live person) search.

Snyder strongly suggests making SAR work be all about play for the canine. She explained the dogs with a passionate play drive begin to think of SAR work as just a game with their toy at the end of it. This is important for both the training and the dog’s work.

The initial training two years ago began with Carter placing a certain harness and leash on Luna, a clue she would eventually see as a Hide-n-Seek type game about to start. The object is always about getting the dog excited enough to find someone. Using his mother’s gloves as an example, Carter would tease Luna with the gloves, making his canine think it was playtime. He then would lay the gloves down on the ground.

As Luna’s natural instinct nudged her to go smell the gloves, Carter would praise her for sniffing the article. Following the praise, Carter said one command only: “Seek.” As the command caught Luna’s ears, Lori would run about 15 yards away from Luna with the dog’s toy in her hand. Luna, being an intelligent dog, ran after Lori to get the desired toy. With much fanfare and praise, Carter would end each “work” session taking Luna’s harness off and entering into a game of catch with her.

After many repetitions of this same scenario, Carter said, “We began stretching the length and ducking behind obstacles all in Luna’s sight. Once again, I would place Luna’s working harness on her to get ready for the game. Once the hider was in place, I would give the command to seek. Luna would then move up to smell the article and take off running after the hider with me in tow. As always, praising and playing with her toy came immediately after.”

With two Indiana SAR assists completed, Carter and Luna are enjoying being with the Indiana K-9 Search and Recovery group training and assisting where they can. Looking into the future, Carter would like to work in a canine unit for either the Armed Forces or a law enforcement agency.

Writer / Tonja Talley

Photographer / Forrest Mellott