At least once a week, 10 handlers and their dogs muck through the mountains, muskegs and forests on and off the beaten paths of Juneau in search of volunteer hiders.
It’s practice for SEADOGS, or SE Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search. Local authorities call on the volunteer group several times a year to help out when people go missing.
Mark Sanders and his dog Brew are searching the muskeg meadow off Fish Creek Road leading to Eaglecrest Ski Area. They’re looking for a mother, father and two daughters who’ve volunteered to hide.
“Sometimes, it’s like, you get a little creative. I’ve got a family of four. They’re out berry picking. This is where they were last seen and, you know, there you go, here’s your search area. Looking for four people,” says Sanders.
Brew’s search command is “Find him,” and Sanders says the dog knows when they’re on a mission.
“Brew. Come here, Brew. Find him.”
Brew runs ahead of Sanders intent on the search.
“He’s ranging pretty good. Ranging is when the dog is working far away from you and they’re not right next to you looking for direction,” Sanders explains. “He’s independently out there searching around, and so then when he runs into a hot scent, he’s going to follow that into a source.”
The 4-year-old golden retriever was 2 when Sanders decided to train him for search and rescue. Most of the other SEADOGS were puppies when they started getting trained.
“When he finds the origin of the scent, then he’ll come back and give a barking alert,” Sanders says.
Sanders and Brew are the newest team to join SEADOGS, but they’ve already have a real life find. In September, Brew located Kevin Michaud, a ptarmigan hunter who’d been missing overnight on Mount Roberts.
SEADOGS and their handlers get called on searches multiple times a year. Stacey Poulson and her golden retriever Sage have found four people and been involved in numerous other searches where there have been finds, “except for Sharon on Mount Roberts,” Poulson says. “We never found her.”
Juneau resident Sharon Buis went missing in May. Her car was found parked at the Mount Roberts trailhead. Local search groups, Alaska State Troopers and the U.S. Coast Guard scoured the area for days. Friends and volunteers continued looking for weeks after the official effort was called off.
Poulson and Sage were part of several searches. Poulson says the dogs did show interest based on the scent of a glove from Buis’ car.
“They indicated areas that Sharon had clearly gone by and could’ve stopped and had lunch or changed her shirt, you know, something – tied her shoe. So a strong pull of scent, the dogs will indicate on,” she says.
But that’s not enough, says Poulson.
“She walked that trail and we all know that. Where she went from that trail, we don’t know,” Poulson says.
In those situations, the dogs can get discouraged, so the handlers will hide someone in the woods the dogs can find.
“We always want the problem to turn out right for them. It helps advance their training. If they keep going on a search and nothing happens and nothing happens then they never get rewarded and so they have no reason to want to continue to search,” Poulson says.
Even when it’s a suicide, the dog needs a happy ending. That’s the kind of find Sage had last spring in Haines. Poulson says dogs feel tragedy as much as humans do.
“When she found her suicide victim her tail was tucked in. She didn’t do the bark alert that she’s trained to do but she let me know that he was there very quietly,” Poulson says. “So a reward in that instance is very important because she’s sad and she’s confused and she doesn’t like the smell but she’s still working and she did the job and so she deserved the reward.”
Sage got rope pull toy. Poulson says that type of situation can be difficult emotionally but she focuses on the fact that it was a find.
“It was successful and you know that it provided closure for the family and that’s the important thing,” Poulson says.
Back in the muskeg, Brew gives a barking alert and leads Sanders to the missing family. The family encircles Brew, showering him with pets and cheers. As a reward, Sanders gives Brew a ball.
There will be a celebration of life honoring Sharon Buis tonight from 7 to 10 at the Goldbelt Hotel.
The Juneau Empire reports Buis’ family has invited community members who knew Buis and those involved in the search.