Mighty Dogs

Chesapeake Search Dogs give a whole new meaning to the term, “Go Fetch!”

The volunteer hides behind a tree a few hundred yards from where Niko, a 4-month old German shepherd puppy, is playing with his owner, Dennis Ciesla. On Ciesla's "Find!" command, Niko bounds up the hill towards the wooded area, darting first right, then left, searching for the man's scent as it wafts through the chilly morning air.

Although the volunteer is in plain sight of Niko on more than one occasion, the puppy has been trained to use his nose, not his eyes, to locate people. Within 60 seconds, he begins barking excitedly—he's found his man. As Niko's training progresses, he'll learn to run to Ciesla, jump up and tap his owner's chest with his front paws, then lead the way back to his find. But for now, the barking is a good first step.

For a job well done, Niko gets praise, hugs, and a few minutes to play with his favorite ball-on-a-stick.

Ciesla is training Niko to be a search-and-rescue dog. He spends about 20 hours a week working with Niko and his other dog Bailey, a 4-year-old Belgian malinois, as part of his volunteer involvement with the Chesapeake Search and Rescue Dog Association.

Sometimes the session happens at Lake Montebello, near Ciesla's home. But much of the training takes place with about 27 other Chesapeake Search Dogs volunteers and their dogs at Gunpowder Falls State Park, chosen because it covers 18,000 acres of varied terrain and is often where real searches are conducted.

Chesapeake Search Dogs was founded about 10 years ago, after the Baltimore County Fire Department eliminated its search-dog program due to budget restrictions. (It costs about $10,000 to get a dog and trainer to operational status.) Knowing the necessity of such a program, the four handlers from the department's Advanced Tactical Rescue created a volunteer group that did similar work. Chesapeake Search Dogs is one of at least half a dozen similar organizations in Maryland.

In 2006, Chesapeake Search Dogs handlers and dogs participated in 68 searches, says Operations Director Maureen Skroly. Six of those searches resulted in finds, she says. One of the individuals found alive was an Alzheimer's patient who had wandered away from his home. The team found the elderly man in a drainage ditch, deep in the woods, and carried him to safety on a stretcher.

"He would not have gotten out himself," says Skroly.

The teams are generally called out to search for two basic categories of missing persons: children and older adults with dementia. Occasionally, they search for lost hikers or missing people who have threatened suicide. Then there are the more painful times, such as when Skroly and her Australian shepherd, Milton, found a drowned teenager in a Carroll County creek in June 2006.

Although it's very rare to find someone alive—or even to find the body of someone who has not survived—that does not deter the handlers in the least.

"It's important to families to know that efforts are being made to find their loved one," said Ciesla, a self-employed carpenter who is assistant director of operations for Chesapeake Search Dogs. Even if the person is deceased, being able to have a body for burial helps the family deal with the loss, he adds.

Dogs can begin training as early as eight weeks of age, and the best candidates for search training are intelligent working dogs that are friendly and non-aggressive. German and Australian shepherds and Labrador retrievers are especially well suited for this kind of work, Skroly says, but other breeds and even mutts can be trained as well.

A dog's superior hearing and sense of smell make it a powerful hunting machine. According to the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR), a single human/dog team is as effective as 20 to 30 trained humans searching a given area at the same time.

The handlers and their pets must meet a variety of stringent criteria, including the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizens Certification, to be qualified by both Chesapeake Search Dogs and NASAR. It takes 18 months to be fully trained as a handler, says Ciesla. The group holds regular trainings two evenings a week, one Saturday a month, and for two full weekends per year, including overnight stays in the park.

For those overnight stays, each team comprises a handler, his or her dog, and a flanker, who walks without a dog and assists with navigation and communication with home base. They go into the woods carrying packs with about 30 pounds of gear in them, Ciesla says. "You have to stay out overnight with just the contents of your pack and show that you and your dog can survive," he says. "You never know when you might have to spend the night out there."

Chesapeake Search Dogs volunteers come from all walks of life. They tend to be in their 30's and 40's, male and female in about equal numbers. Not all volunteers start out loving the outdoors, or even dogs, says Skroly, but they do have one common trait: "Everybody that is on that team likes a challenge," she says.

To gain certification, handlers must show proficiency in land navigation techniques, first aid, wilderness survival, safety training, and search management procedure. In addition, some dogs are specially trained to conduct water searches and to search for human remains. Cadaver dogs, as they are known, are trained to recognize six specific scents of human decomposition.

Unlike many law enforcement dogs, which are trained to search for specific individuals by tracking their unique scent from a personal item, search and rescue dogs sniff out any human scent in an area that's generally uninhabited.

It stands to reason that the dogs love spending time with their owners, being outside, and the various ear scratches, treats, and chew toys that come with a job well done. But being a Chesapeake Search Dogs volunteer requires a lot of grueling, often unrewarding work for the dog handlers. So besides the challenge, what's really in it for the humans?

Skroly says it's simple: She and her colleagues do it because they want to help people.

Elizabeth H. Beall, Chesapeake Search Dogs' executive director, says one of the reasons she became involved with the organization about six years ago was because she had a young daughter. There were a number of child abductions in the national news at the time.

"I thought, if something happened to my daughter or if she walked away, I would sure hope somebody would help me," says Beall.

"We all hope to one day impact someone's life by finding their loved one," adds Ciesla.

"That has to be a major motivator," Skroly says, "because at the end of the day there's no paycheck"—and finds are rare, live finds even more so. (Case in point: On September 11, 2001, the FBI invited Chesapeake Search Dogs to participate in the search for human remains after the Pentagon attack.)

What's more, searches can be physically exhausting and occasionally result in mild injuries to the team. Once a search dog was bitten by a copperhead snake. (That's why the team always has a veterinary technician—also a volunteer—nearby to render aid to the dogs, if necessary.)

But when you find someone, it makes it all worthwhile: Several years ago, Skroly was part of a team that located an elderly Carroll County woman with dementia who had gone out for a walk and gotten lost. She had only a light sweater for warmth. "It started to get very cold, and that's when it gets very urgent for us," she says.

The woman was quickly found by a search dog, and Skroly was nearby when it happened. "You feel an overwhelming sense of joy and pride, that you were able to help bring this to a very quick and successful close," she says.

Friends and family members of the volunteers are also affected by the work. Skroly's husband, Stephen, a nurse and a veterinary tech, actually solved the problem by joining the team.

"He realized it would probably be the only way he could spend time with me!" laughs Maureen Skroly. The couple, who have school-age children, live in York, Pennsylvania.

"It takes huge dedication, not only from our members but also from our families, who support us," agrees Beall. "Many times we leave our own parties and picnics to go out and search at all hours of the night, no matter what the holiday or day."

It's particularly hard to explain absences from family gatherings when the search teams spend hours in the field and turn up nothing, says Skroly.

"It has happened where we've gone out and searched for days, and the person was found in a neighbor's house," Skroly says.

Rather than frustration over wasted effort, the volunteers feel only relief, she says. "You want to solve this problem, this puzzle. When the puzzle gets solved and we can all go, 'Aha!'—there is a sigh of relief that this person was found," she says.

The organization relies solely on donations to buy its equipment, including costly computers and radios. All equipment is maintained and tested by a volunteer logistics team led by a former policeman. The volunteers spend their own money on clothing, equipment and supplies, and a majority of their free time training and caring for their dogs.

"You have to have a true, real love for dogs to do this kind of work," says Sgt. Lisa Nyland, Dorchester County district supervisor for the Maryland Natural Resource Police (NRP), the state law enforcement agency that coordinates with Chesapeake Search Dogs. Her two yellow Labrador retrievers are trained to find live humans and cadavers.

A 23-year NRP veteran, Nyland worked hard to establish a K-9 unit within her agency. She has been using her dogs on the job for about 13 years, she says.

Nyland says she learned almost everything she knows about canine search and rescue from her volunteer experience with several Eastern Shore rescue organizations. She is currently president of Shore K-9 Search and Rescue.

"That's the reason that I started with the search and rescue dogs, because most law enforcement agencies don't have them," she says. "There's a lot of satisfaction when you've taught a dog to do something that important. I've had one live find in 13 years, and there's nothing like it."

That was on the Fourth of July weekend in 1996, when her dog Jessie, who is now deceased, found a Boy Scout who had wandered away from his camp on the Eastern Shore. The youngster had been lost for two days and was found crying, scared, muddy, and wet. He appeared to be scratched up from crawling through briars.

Although Jessie had been trained to run back to Nyland and tap her on the chest after making a find, the dog would not let the frightened child out of her sight. Instead, she ran to the trail's edge and barked insistently at Nyland, who was about 40 feet below, combing the waterfront in hip boots. "That was very unusual," Nyland says. "She had never done that before."

Nyland climbed up the hill to find Jessie standing about four feet from the boy, "barking like a fool."

"You can never know what's in a dog's mind," says Nyland, "but I think she knew he was upset and she didn't want to leave him."

Issue date: January, 2008
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