AK: Search dogs harness their super-powered noses

Brew, a 9 year old Golden Retriever, returns to SEADOGS’ Mark Sanders to let him know that he’s found where the scent of a missing person (actually a training volunteer) had veered off into the muskeg. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

If you become lost or injured in Alaska, your best chance of being found may rest in the paws of an unassuming hero: a search dog. Man’s best friend has a super-powered sense of smell that can detect just about anyone, anywhere. Highly trained and ready to respond with their dedicated handlers at a moment’s notice, search dogs can’t brag about their abilities. The only reward they ask is a chance to play.

From KTOO in Juneau, Matt Miller learned more about the world of search dogs by – what else? – volunteering to get lost.

I’ve crouched down against a wall and behind a couch in a darkened room in the back of a vacant building.

A few minutes later, I hear a dog enter the room. She climbs on top of the couch, then tentatively peeks around the end of it and sniffs at my microphone. She’s found me.

Bizzy, the 5 year old McNab California ranch dog who found me inside a vacant building, poses for a picture outside. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

“Atta girl!” said Mike Pilling, co-owner of Bizzy, a five-year-old McNab, or California ranch dog. “I decided to get a small, fast dog because I’m getting slower. So, that dog is like lightning compared to a Lab.”

Juneau volunteers with SEADOGS, or Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search, do this training every week. It may be in a vacant building one week and then out in the muskeg the next.

“They say you don’t practice until you get it right. You practice until you can’t get it wrong. So, it’s just over and over and over again,” Higgins said.

Outside the building, Liam Higgins is training Oskar, his five-month-old German Shepherd, the very basics.

“Oskar! Where’s he going?” Higgins asked.

Higgins hands Oskar’s favorite toy to his friend A.J., who then runs off and disappears into the brush. Higgins tries to hold on to Oskar as he whines in excitement and anticipation.

“Find him!” Higgins ordered.

We chase after Oskar as he goes upwind way past where A.J. is hiding, but then the dog circles around to pick up the scent.

“Good boy! What a good boy!” Higgins praises Oskar.

SEADOGS’ Liam Higgins holds on to Oskar, his 5 month old German Shepherd, while he looks to make sure that a volunteer is hidden before giving the command to “Find him!”. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Compared to a human, the part of the dog’s brain devoted to processing smells and their olfactory receptors are at least five times bigger or more numerous. That’s why scientists believe a dog’s sense of smell is not just several times better, but several orders of magnitude – or as much as 100,000 times – better than ours.

Higgins says dogs can smell like we see.

“One example I was given was like when you come home and your significant other is making beef stew. You smell beef stew when you walk in the door. The dog smells beef, carrots, onions, potatoes, each ingredient individually the same as we would as if we looked in the pot,” Higgins said.

A dog’s sense of smell is so sensitive that they can locate a body underwater from the gases that rise to the surface. Or, they can find someone buried in a mudslide or avalanche from a scent rising up through the soil or snow.

Higgins says searching the thick gooey mud of the 2015 Sitka landslide as flowing water carried the scent away was the most challenging work he and his dog ever did.

“So, it was kind of hard to know what search technique you should really focus on predominately because it was a little bit of everything,” Higgins said.

Teamwork is critical to the success of the dogs. Handlers must be aware of how terrain, water currents, wind and temperature changes affect a scent, and guide their dog to the best place for them to do their job.

“Take scent.” SEADOGS’ Geoff Larson introduces a gauze bandage with a missing girl’s scent to Tango, a 4 year old Golden Retriever which is trained as a trailing or scent discerning dog. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

For some dogs, the job is not just to find anyone – but to find a particular person. Inside the building where Bizzy found me, Geoff Larson is introducing Tango, a four-year-old Golden Retriever to a piece of gauze rubbed with the scent of a missing girl.

“Tango track!” Larson said.

Tango trots out on a long 40 foot rope, sniffing room to room, and occasionally doubling back in the hallway. Tango is a trailing or scent discerning dog, which can detect a unique scent dropped by our hair or skin particles. Such dogs come in handy, for example, searching for an Alzheimer’s patient lost in a busy public place already inundated with many other human scents.

“You found her! You found her!” Larson said.

Tango has found the girl hiding under a desk in one of the back rooms.

“Good girl! Good girl!” Larson said.

But Larson has a made a mistake. A big one. He forgot to bring Tango’s toy.

So, Larson improvises.

“Grrrr!” Larson said, mimicking a dog’s growl.

He quickly takes off a shoe and lets Tango play tug with his sock.

“Good girl! Good girl! Yahooo! Yahooo!” Larson said.

Playtime is the big reward for Tango and the other search dogs. Every dog gets play and praise after every search.

For the handlers, the rewards are not so straightforward. They might get reimbursed for damaged gear and their travel to search sites, but they don’t get paid. They’re volunteering all of their time during training and searches.

Mike Pilling recalls when he and another of his dogs found the body of a missing man. His widow later sent their dog a new collar and ball for Christmas.

“The rewarding ones are when the family appreciates that you’ve found the body of somebody that they didn’t think would be found otherwise.  Some families have been very, very appreciative of that, and that kind of makes it worthwhile. It’s been pretty cool,” Pilling said.