Dogcharmer: A traumatic search

Search-and-rescue dog Michelle, a Doberman. —Courtesy Tom Shelby

Dear Dogcharmer,

I would love to hear about a K-9 search and rescue experience.


Dear Arnold,

My wife often tells me to relate this story, because of the role she played in this one. It was late November, and quite cold, with patches of ice on the ground. I had had five training appointments that day, two of them with large, seriously aggressive dogs, and was really looking forward to getting into bed and shutting out the day. It was after 11 o’clock when the call came in, as I was putting on my PJs.

The police dispatcher who called said the missing man was from the Hasidic community in Monsey, N.Y. Being only 20 minutes away, I was called first. A half-hour later the missing man’s wife told me her husband always took a walk after dinner, and was usually back by eight o’clock. The house was completely filled with concerned friends and neighbors, including about 20 of them around my car to see the search dog who was coming to the rescue. I was pretty upset at this, because my Doberman, Michelle, had never experienced a crowd of people tapping on the car windows and gawking, making her anxious. Not a great way to start a search!

So after sending the gawkers away, I took a few minutes of walking Michelle around before entering the house. The house had so many people in it that I couldn’t imagine finding something that was only touched by the missing husband, and asked the wife if there was anything that she was sure nobody touched but the husband. She pointed to a closet and said, his prayer shawl, nobody touches it but him.

I took it down from 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 said “Track.” She stuck her nose in the bag, snorted, and then briefly sniffed the wife and kids, telling me that their scents were on the bag, and Michelle was eliminating them as needing to be found.

We humans shed about 40,000 dead skin cells a minute, so if I have a place last seen (PLS), with Michelle’s 200 million olfactory cells compared with our mere 5 million, she can track the shedding skin cells. She immediately picked up his scent at the front door, and took me through the neighborhood for over an hour, until she left the sidewalk and took me into the street, at which point she lost the scent. That told me he got picked up by a car.

I was quite exhausted at this point, but knew I couldn’t quit. So I went back to the house, took off her harness and leash, stood on the stoop, and said “Go find.” Now I had her air-scenting, working the wind cone, as opposed to tracking. Interestingly, she took a left out of the house, as opposed to the right turn she’d taken when she was tracking. After about an hour I was in a wooded area, and Michelle’s body language was intensifying as she was going back and forth, snorting, telling me we were close. I had put a glow ring around her neck so I could see the movements of my black Dobe in the dark. Her movements were clearly excited and fast.

Then she disappeared in the woods, at which point I stayed where I was, knowing she would come back to “show me.” When it’s a live find, I usually hear her bark, and she comes back to me, tail wagging with a stupid-looking grin on her face. However, this time she came back with her head down, and sat in front of me, which was my cue to say, “Show me”. She turned and slowly walked to the left for a couple of minutes, with me following. The light from my flashlight was in need of fresh batteries, and I was about to put fresh ones in when I saw it! Two legs on the ground, with the rest of the body obscured by a large tree. Michelle was sitting next to the body with her head down, and tail wagging very slowly.

I rewarded her with what enthusiasm I could muster and then went into shock. I was looking at an alien from another planet, and never felt as scared as I did at that moment. Hyperventilating, my knees gave out, and I plopped down on the ground hard. I didn’t want to look at that distorted head and face again, but couldn’t help myself. Breathing heavily, I came to realize it was the husband, with a clear plastic bag over his head and face.

As far as I knew, debriefing didn’t exist for K-9 units at that time. By the time I got home, it was after four in the morning, and I was so wound up, sleeping was out of the question. My wife Jaye awoke at my arrival and I told her the whole story in great detail, which left her freaked out and wide-awake, with no chance of going back to sleep. As for me, telling her the whole story twice in detail served as my debriefing, and enabled me to go to sleep. Years later, Jaye still chastises me for transferring my trauma to her.

Dogcharmer Tom

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