Muddy trails slosh beneath boot-clad feet in Issaquah, Washington’s Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park as rain drips down from the trees. A lone woman huddles, quiet and still, shrouded by darkness and tree branches. Seemingly out of nowhere a German Shepherd springs onto the path, triumphantly notifying its handler of the woman’s presence. Moments later, a symphony of lights focus in her direction. The Search and Rescue Canine Unit training is completed, and the German Shepherd, Shiloh, is rewarded with words of praise and treats. This time the woman rescued was a volunteer. In a real emergency, the stakes of hide and seek are much higher.
With over 1,000 missions since 1996, working as a part of the King County Search Dog (KCSD) Unit isn’t just a helpful hobby; it’s a lifestyle. Joan Hitchner, an Operations Leader for KCSD, compares it to taking on a part time job. Trainers and their dogs racked up over 4,000 hours of training in 2018 alone. Dedicating many hours practicing their skills for real life situations, they seek out those who are lost, both dead and alive.
There are over 5,000 search and rescue volunteers in the state of Washington. They receive up to 600 calls a year about missing persons. These volunteers and their four-legged fellows come together with many agencies to dedicate their time, personal resources and shared compassion to help others experiencing disaster.
As an Operations Leader for the KCSD, Josh Gerstman is constantly on call. He and his wife Heather have worked with the unit for the last 22 years. They teach dog trainings around the globe and are now raising their 4th and 5th search and rescue dogs.
“If your life isn’t set up in a way that you can’t dedicate almost every weekend to some kind of training, and on top of that being ready to leave a family dinner, or your workplace, or your kid’s soccer game because you’re getting called on a search and rescue mission, this probably isn’t the activity for you,” said Gerstman.
The Gerstmans’ search and rescue dogs, Natick and Oso, are both chocolate labrador retrievers. They are each about 70 pounds and have an aptitude for finding food just about anywhere. They were bred to possess high energy attitudes and the incessant need to track and find. The energy dogs would normally dedicate to games of catch are channeled into finding humans.
Natick gets his name from Gerstman’s hometown of Natick, Massachusetts. Oso is named to honor friends and community members the Gerstmans worked alongside.
When the Oso landslide happened in 2014, KCSD was tasked with getting into the mud and recovering the bodies of those unable to escape destruction. Despite extensive training, this disaster posed several challenges the team had not anticipated. Massive amounts of water scrambled scents and entire houses were buried. This made smells of potential corpses indistinguishable from other odors.
All training for this kind of work relies on rewarding the dog’s natural ability to track specific scents. A dog’s sense of smell is estimated to be over a thousand times better than a human’s. As much as 30 percent of a dog’s brain is devoted to detecting and understanding what they smell. They can find differences in scent concentration between their two nostrils allowing them to determine the direction of smells.
Once trained in the basic discipline of finding a live person, they can advance to finding dead and decomposing bodies. Strengthening this skill is difficult because of the lack of training material. Gerstman said their team has to get crafty to help the dogs recognize and track these kinds of smells by using anything from hip joints donated from hip replacement surgeries, to placentas offered by new mothers. Using these materials, they familiarize the dogs with the scents to sniff out victims on real missions. But extraordinary circumstances can confound extraordinary senses.
“Honestly I hope we never experience something like Oso ever again,” said Gerstman.
It takes about 2 years to become a certified KCSD team member. There are currently 26 active members and 19 working dogs. King County Search Dogs are one part of the overall effort of King County Search and Rescue.
Not every mission calls for dogs, but when needed they play a valuable role in the search operation by ruling out areas where missing individuals are not, and focusing efforts on higher probability areas. The unique smelling capabilities of dogs make them top candidates for the daunting task of retrieving corpses. When someone has just died, their smell changes, a subtle transformation that people cannot detect, but dogs can. Whether recently fallen or 20 years dead, search and rescue dogs sniff out those who can no longer call out for help.