Smith family trains search and rescue dogs
Lisa Smith of rural Mayetta and her family know that a dog is more than just “man’s best friend” — at times, a dog can also save a man’s life just by finding him.
Proof of this lies in the fact that three of the Smith family’s dogs — Mister, a white German shepherd, Otis, a bloodhound, and Laudie, a border collie — are in various stages of training to save the lives of people who get lost, whether accidentally or of their own accord.
“It’s kind of a family affair,” says Lisa Smith, who recently returned from a Search and Rescue Dogs of the United States (SARDUS) certification clinic where Mister received a national Type II Wilderness Air Scent certification. Indeed, Lisa and her family — husband Kevin, daughter MaRyka and son Karsen — have been involved in search-and-rescue dog training for about five years.
The Smiths are involved in a group known as Northeast Kansas Search and Rescue, or NEK-SAR, which trains dogs for hunts such as the certification training that Mister received in Colorado. NEK-SAR was founded in September 2012, but the Smiths got started when Otis came into their lives a few years back.
“We got a bloodhound puppy, and we didn’t know what to do with it,” Lisa said. “We thought, what about search and rescue? And we later found out that there was a search-and-rescue team right here in Jackson County... We thought it was kind of meant to be that there’s someone we can train with, just right down the road.”
Mister has been with the family about as long, they said, with MaRyka adding that he’s “the most active” in search-and-rescue training. Lisa also describes Mister as “a one-person dog,” which, in a way, is helpful during training.
“With each team, ideally, you’d have one dog, one handler,” Lisa said. “You have to be able to read the dog’s behavior.”
Each dog also has its own “reward system,” and with Mister, it’s treats. With Laudie, on the other hand, it’s a favorite toy.
Dogs are also trained in different disciplines, whether they are “life find” searches or cadaver searches. Laudie, whom Lisa said is “just starting,” has the potential to become an expert hunter on both counts, while Mister excels in “life find” searches, and Otis has begun cadaver searches under MaRyka’s training.
A dog’s greatest asset in search-and-rescue training, the family said, is its sense of smell, although training in hilly terrain puts that sense to the test. Lisa said the recent SARDUS certification work in the mountains of Colorado was difficult for her and Mister, since there were more hills and valleys to deal with, and MaRyka concurred that working in such terrain can be difficult for dogs.
“To them, if you could see it, the scent would be like smoke,” MaRyka said. “It would go over ravines, but not into ravines, so with every hill a dog goes over, they can lose the smell, and it’s hard to refocus on it when you’re not in it, but at the bottom of a hill.”
The greatest reward, for the handlers, comes from watching the dogs put their training into practice and find the people they’re looking for, whether alive or dead, Lisa said. In the latter case, she added, cadaver search dogs “help provide closure” for those involved in the search.
On the human side, people involved in search-and-rescue are required to be 18 years of age before they can get certified with their dogs. Karsen, who is 15, serves as a “flanker,” a position they can attain at 15 if they are working with another family member who is certified for search-and-rescue, while MaRyka, a senior at Royal Valley High School, recently received her certification and sees it as something she will continue to do in the future.
As for the dogs themselves, Lisa said that “about any breed of dog” can be trained for search and rescue, just as long as they have the “aptitude” to be trained. Laudie, who has only been with the family for about three months, “just had all the attributes I needed” for search dog training, she added.
“Border collies are usually very focused,” Lisa said. “A lot of people use Labradors or mixes, or shepherds. But Laudie’s got a lot more speed and swiftness that’s going to make her awesome, either as a cadaver dog or as a life find dog.”
NEK-SAR is also looking for volunteer “victims” for the dogs to hunt, and Lisa noted that in a manner of speaking, it’s the volunteers who actually train the dogs, who are trained to sniff out the scent of the volunteers who provide them with rewards upon successful conclusion of a search. All the trainers and handlers do, she added, is “follow behind and try to read the dogs.”
“It’s the easiest volunteering ever,” she added. “You just go and sit in a pasture for two hours.”
For more information on Northeast Kansas Search and Rescue, contact Russell Pugh at (785) 986-6715, Lisa or Kevin Smith at (785) 966-2149, or visit www.nek-sar.com