Dogs trained to find people - even underwater

by Allison Batdorff - Billings Gazette, Wyoming Bureau

Search And Rescue Handler Rena Ferguson and her dog, Buddy.Search and rescue handler Rena Ferguson from
Bonneville, Idaho, and her dog, Buddy, worked a scent
'problem' from the boat Tuesday on Newton Lake. Buddy
detected underwaterdivers and sunken scent machines.
Criminals, beware: Throwing off the bloodhounds by wading across the river doesn't work.

Bailey the Airedale knows that trick. So does Windla the German shepherd, Buddy the golden retriever and several shades of Labradors. With practice, these dogs can find people hiding at the bottom of a lake. They are doing that in a search-dog course conducted Tuesday and today in Cody. Organized by Park County handler K.T. Irwin, the course gives search dogs training to find people, dead or alive.

Usually, these canines are called "cadaver dogs." But dogs can tell the difference between a live smell and a dead one, Irwin said.

"We give them different commands because the smells are different," Irwin said. "In a drowning that happened less than an hour ago, we can give them the command to find a live person."

Dogs won't get depressed if you tell them to find a "dead" person, she added.

"We train so much that the dogs think they're in training all of the time," Irwin said. "They still get the treat, the reward and the party, so they're pretty happy with themselves."

Nine teams of dogs and handlers came to the training from Colorado, Idaho, Washington and Montana. The course was taught by Deb Timenstein of Missoula, Mont., with assistance from Stacie Chandler of Washington state.

Nia the chocolate Lab found diver Mart Knapp on Tuesday in
Newton Lake and got a treat for her trouble.
Nia the chocolate Lab and diver Mart Knapp The trainers sank scent machines and divers in Newton Lake on Tuesday and had the dogs find their quarry from the boat and from shore.

More often than not, the dogs found their target, whether hidden 5 or 20 feet underwater.

Smells rise to the surface in bubbles. Dogs detect these subtle odors and start narrowing the "scent cone" - the invisible funnel of smell emanating from the source. Starting from the outside, the dog will zigzag along the cone's borders until it pinpoints the spot. A good handler reads the dog's signals and knows when to reward the effort.

The divers have to thank the dogs, too. Line tenders on shore flashed lights or jerked lines to let them know when the dogs were paddling above them, barking happily. Divers Josh Sapp and Mart Knapp greeted the pooches by name and often emerged from the depths with their favorite toys.

Timenstein has trained dogs for 20 years.

This is a refresher for a lot of these dogs, but the dynamic rewards from the divers are something different.