Dogcharmer: Transferring trauma

Search and rescue work doesn’t always end the way you’d like.

Michelle, when not working, harmonizing with Celine and Tanzy. Courtesy Tom Shelby.

Dear Dogcharmer,

How come you never talk about your K-9 search and rescue experiences?


Dear Dogcharmer reader,

This was a question asked of me the other night at a dinner party, and my wife Jaye suggested this story.

My four-legged partner at the time was my 6-year-old Dobe, Michelle, who was not only a great working dog, but also a big sister to my three kids, and smarter than some of my friends. The call for help for the missing person came in at about 11 pm, as I was getting ready for bed. It was November in New York, and there were patches of snow on the ground. A half-hour later I was in the house and introduced to the wife and two children of the missing husband. The wife told me that her husband took a walk most evenings after dinner, around 7, and was always back by 8ish. Everybody who’s reading this, and everyone else, is dropping about 40,000 dead skin cells a minute. We may not be aware of this, but your dog is. So, if I have a PLS (place last seen) of the missing person, I can bring Michelle to that exact spot, point to the ground and say “Track!” Every step the missing person takes, he’s dropping those skin cells, and Michelle will track him. In that case she’s on a 40-foot leash attached to a harness, with me on the other end of the leash. If there is no PLS, she’ll be off-leash, working the wind cone (into the wind) hoping to pick up the scent particles on the wind.

The house and yard were filled with friends and neighbors for support, so I asked the wife if she had something that absolutely no one but her husband could have touched, so as to avoid the confusion of multiple scents. If she handed her husband’s hat to a cop who then handed it to me, I now have at least two extra scents on that hat. I needed a “clean” scent article. She pointed to a closet and said, “His prayer shawl, nobody touches that but him.”

I took it down from a high shelf in the closet and had the wife and two children stand next to me as I opened the plastic bag with the shawl, held it under Michelle’s nose and told her, “Track!” She stuck her head in, snorted, then shoved her nose into the wife’s thigh, and gave the two kids a brief sniff. This told me that their scents were mixed with that bag and Michelle was eliminating them as missing victims. She picked up his track at the front stoop, and about three hours later we entered a wooded area, where she got very excited, picked up her nose and was clearly air-scenting. WE WERE CLOSE. At this point my hands were numb with cold and I was exhausted, but very excited, and stressed at what I might find. Then I saw it. The feet. They weren’t standing. The feet, and a little bit of legs, were visible, with a big tree blocking whatever else there was to see. When I came around the tree, the shock was so great that I started hyperventilating, and got lightheaded for a second. He looked like an alien from another planet, until I realized that it was a human, a poor soul who looked like he was from outer space because of the clear plastic bag over his head. There was no pulse, I checked.

Between being initially scared out of my wits, totally exhausted, and having to relay the grisly news to a wife, I finally got home at 4:30ish and couldn’t even think about sleeping. Had to debrief, had to tell someone, so I woke up Jaye and relayed the whole story, twice. After that, I slept until noon, while Jaye was now in bed, eyes wide open, sitting straight up, in a state of sleepless shock until she had to go to work. Thanks for the helpful debriefing, honey.


The Dogcharmer

Have a question for the Dogcharmer? Write him at Find him on Instagram at DogTrainer Diaries.