Island dog to the rescue
Like most four-year-olds, Nolan likes to play hide-and-go-seek. However, what seems like a game to the Australian shepherd dog may end up saving someone's life.
Nolan is in training for certification as a search and rescue (SAR) dog. His owner, Karen Ogden, serves as the SAR team leader for the Dukes County Emergency Management Agency.
Recently she advertised for volunteers to hide and act as "scent generators" to help train Nolan to find people. Ms. Ogden, who owns a dog-training business called Positive Rewards, has been working with Nolan for about a year in wilderness air-scent training, to search for any live human.
Last month, she put Nolan through his paces in the parking lot at the Dukes County government offices. Herb Foster, president of the Dukes County SAR Association, volunteered for hiding duty.
Suited up and ready to put his nose to work, Nolan waits for instructions from owner Karen Ogden. Photos by Janet Hefler
Nolan's work uniform consists of a bright fluorescent orange vest decorated with a white reflective cross, equipped with a bell and light stick. The minute his vest went on, his ears stood up and he looked up expectantly at Ms. Ogden, ready to get to work.
"Go find," Ms. Ogden told him. He took off at a run, a black, white, and tan blur, zig-zagging across the parking lot. Dogs pick up scent from humans, who constantly shed skin cells that float through the air like smoke from a barbeque, Ms. Ogden explained.
When Nolan picked up Mr. Foster's scent, his nose arced like the needle of a compass pointing north.
Nolan has to master several specific, complex steps in a behavior sequence. Once he finds a person, Nolan is trained to do a "bark re-find." He is supposed to run back to Ms. Ogden, sit down, and bark several times. When she responds with the cue, "Show me," Nolan must run back to the subject and keep repeating the sequence, as Ms. Ogden closes the distance between them.
Consistency and practice reinforce Nolan's behavior, although every now and then he tries taking a short-cut or two, when he knows Ms. Ogden can't see him. That's why she equips volunteers who hide with a radio so they can report back to her when he lollygags along the way. He also has been known to make a stealth circle-back movement for another round of treats by catching subjects off-guard.
Nolan, dressed in his work clothes.
Described affectionately by Ms. Ogden as a "furry brick," the exuberant, solidly built 56-pound dog loves to barrel toward people, stopping short with a running leap into the air to lick faces - a behavior discouraged by his owner, of course.
Nolan's reward during training is pieces of chicken mixed with some kibble. As training progresses, Ms. Ogden will begin adjusting his rewards so he does not get something every time he performs, but perhaps every other time. Just the possibility of a payoff in chicken, a sort of doggy lottery system, will be enough to motivate him.
Ms. Ogden began doing canine search and rescue in 1992. The Dukes County SAR Association started up in 1996 and the team a year later. Mr. Foster joined the organization in 1998. "I've been involved on many searches on the Island, for anyone from an Alzheimer's patient to someone who was inebriated," he said. The team's busiest year was 1999, with three multi-day searches, including one for John F. Kennedy, Jr., his wife and her sister when their plane went down in the ocean off Aquinnah.
The Dukes County team is one of five statewide belonging to the Massachusetts Search and Rescue Dog (MASSARD) Federation, which works closely with the Massachusetts State Police. The coalition was formed to unify and identify search groups, as well as to standardize training and certification for canines and their handlers.
Although the SAR team is not called out as often as other first responders, the incidents to which they respond usually last longer. A SAR team starts a search from the last point a person was seen or where belongings or other evidence is found.
Figuring the average person walks at a pace of about two miles per hour, he or she could be anywhere within a two-mile radius in an hour. That translates into a daunting 12 square miles, or 1,300 acres. It would take a SAR team about three to four hours to search 30 acres, depending on the terrain, Ms. Ogden said, or about two hours with dogs.
"The hardest thing to do is train people to stop where they are when lost," she added. "Kids are easier to find, because many have been taught to 'hug a tree', which makes them stay put. Adults try to rationalize their way out and keep wandering."
The Dukes County team is now down to nine members, four of them field personnel.
"We can't respond to incidents as a team right now," Ms. Ogden explained. "Our scenes are measured in acres and hours, and can involve multiple day searches. If we had 15 minimum on our team, it would be good for 12 hours."
With fewer team members available, she is concentrating on providing her dogs as a resource. She also owns Orion, an eight-and-a-half year old Golden Retriever, who is one of only two civilian-owned dogs in the state trained to find cadavers. He also performs searches over water from a boat.
The team continues to meet the first Thursday every month, with field exercises the third Thursday every month. "The search and rescue team forms a unique resource for the Island," Ms. Ogden said. "I would hate to see it discontinued. It's not a lack of funding or equipment - we need people that are willing to commit."
A few weeks ago, Nolan and Ms. Ogden participated in a search exercise with about 30 law enforcement and search and rescue personnel in Taunton, sponsored by the Massachusetts State Police. Like any proud parent, Ms. Ogden reported that Nolan did well - and escaped the fate of one dog that was sprayed by a skunk.
Nolan's search capability is up to about 16 acres now. Not only did he find the first subject quickly, but he performed without any treats, running back and forth twice until the team reached the person. "Part of his reward, then, was that he got to thoroughly lick the subject," Ms. Ogden said. (Maybe he or she tasted like chicken.)
Ms. Ogden is aiming to get Nolan's trail test completed in the next two weeks, then continue his training so he will be ready to take his 40-acre day test in mid-June, before the summer heat arrives to interfere with scent.
After that, Nolan will take a 40-acre night test, and the last, a 160-acre day test. However, Ms. Ogden emphasized, "Training proceeds at a dog's pace, not ours. I have a target date for getting Nolan tested, but it all depends on his learning process."
Three dog-lovers - Julia Humphreys of West Tisbury, Beth Leo of Vineyard Haven, and Barry Nevin of Edgartown - have volunteered their hiding services so far.
For those who might like to get lost for a little while and have no aversion to a handful of cold chicken, call Ms. Ogden at 508-693-3708.
There's nothing like the thundering sound of galloping paws and the sight of sparkling brown eyes with a triumphant look that says, "Gotcha."