Scents of purpose

TUPPER LAKE – It only took a few minutes after the search began for Semper to come crashing through the hemlock stand I was kneeling in.

Marilyn Wilson and I had intentionally wandered off a truck trail that cuts deep into the Tupper Lake woods to test Semper’s search and rescue skills. He passed with flying colors.

Wilson runs her own Tupper Lake-based not-for-profit dog training corporation called K-9 Soldier Search and Rescue Inc.

Earlier that morning, Wilson and Search and Rescue of the Northern Adirondacks (SARNAK) coordinator Wayne LaPierre had me rub my hand against a brown paper napkin, which LaPierre then placed in a plastic freezer bag. That was all the help Semper, a 115-pound German shepherd, needed to find me in the dense woods.

Wilson and I had recreated a potentially deadly scenario that’s all too common in the Adirondack backcountry: Someone ends up lost or stranded in the woods, someplace off trail. Any combination of a drop in temperature, injury, wet clothes and lack of sustenance can exacerbate the situation and lead to hypothermia or death.

When someone is reported missing, state Department of Environmental Conservation officials are usually the first to respond, though they don’t always find what they’re looking for. That’s where SARNAK comes in.

“We don’t go to the DEC; they come to us,” LaPierre said. “It’s usually after a few days have gone by, and the preliminary searches haven’t worked.”

The volunteer-based service organization specializes in providing crew bosses like LaPierre to assist DEC search and rescue missions. A crew boss is certified in techniques involving grid searches, supervising a search crew and navigating with a map and compass.

LaPierre brings more than crew-boss talent to the table. As a German shepherd breeder and trainer with Leatherneck K-9s, he also brings seasoned search and rescue dogs like Semper, whom he’s worked with for almost seven years.

LaPierre prefers German shepherds, but search and rescue dogs are not breed-specific. He explained that any kind of herding, hunting or working breed can be utilized for a variety of tasks, including sniffing out bedbugs, drugs, mold or lost people.

Regardless of the focus, the handler-dog relationship is paramount.

“You have to get what works for you,” LaPierre said. “It’s all in your working relationship with the individual dog. If the dog wants to work for you, then it will.”

Different types of searches require different skills. Semper was demonstrating “trailing” when he uncovered my hiding spot. To trail, the dog is first provided with a scent item, like the paper napkin I rubbed my hand on, to pick up the subject’s scent. The dog then uses that scent to pick up a trail.

“The dog’s nose is to the ground, and Wayne is at the other end of a 30-foot lead, often climbing over fallen logs and through heavy brush,” Wilson said. “The dog will run straight after the hottest trail.”

“Air scenting” is a technique similar to trailing in that it begins with a scent item, but it’s done with the dog off the leash. The handler walks along a grid pattern and needs to make sure the dog is heading into the wind so the scent is blowing toward the animal.

The dog’s training determines how it reacts once the subject is found. Anyone who’s traipsed through the thick undergrowth of an Adirondack forest knows that the foliage can create a natural soundproof barrier. That’s why search and rescue dogs here are trained to return to their handler and give a sign, like a gentle nose nudge, to indicate the subject has been found.

“FEMA-type” dogs are usually employed in cities where there could be a lot of rubble after a disaster like an earthquake or a bombing. The Federal Emergency Management Agency might call on a group that trains such dogs, the way the DEC might call in SARNAK, but FEMA dogs are trained to react much differently than their Adirondack counterparts.

“They train those dogs to bark because there’s a lot of rubble and sharp things sticking up,” LaPierre said. “They don’t want the dog going back and forth because the chance of injury is high.”

One of LaPierre’s youngest dogs, Cedra, has been working on her air-scenting skills. LaPierre is the training officer for the Tupper Lake Dive Team, so he will train her for water-search missions. To make Cedra more effective in an Adirondack-specific search and rescue mission, Lapierre said he’s also training her to find both living and dead people.

“I feel an air-scent dog should be trained for both,” LaPierre said. “When you’re going out looking for a lost subject, you don’t know if they had a heart attack and died or if they’re still walking around. My thought is, if I send a dog out that’s only been trained to find a live person, is it going to ignore human remains because it’s not a live person?”

Cedra will spend a couple of days each week training to find living people, and a couple days training to find dead people. For the latter, Wilson and LaPierre prefer to use real human remains, like the donated teeth, bones, tissue, organs and placenta Wilson uses for cadaver scent items. A mixture of those items can effectively mimic the scent profile of a corpse.

“It’s important to use what the dog might actually find in the field,” Wilson said. “It’s a very special set of circumstances to be able to find someone. You have to expose him to tons of situations so he can learn.”

A smell, no matter how pungent, doesn’t stay put. LaPierre explained that scents are heavily affected by temperature – when it’s warm, they rise, and when it’s cool, they tend to hug the ground. That’s why searches are most effective when they are performed in the morning and evening.

Damp conditions help, too.

“The wetness helps to keep the particles that are creating the smell in their nose so they can keep processing them,” Wilson said. “Sometimes they’ll sneeze, and they’ll do a big ‘huff,’ and that’s when they’re clearing out their nose to re-get the scent.”

There’s also some detective work involved in tracking. Scents are emitted from their source in a cone-like shape, so the farther away the dog is, the larger that scent cone is. Dogs zigzag to determine the perimeter of the scent cone. If the dog is on the right trail, each zigzag will be progressively shorter, and the subject’s location will be at the point of the cone.

“I’ve always felt that the dog is born with the ability to air scent; born with the ability to track,” LaPierre said. “The only thing people do is teach the dog to track or air scent what they’re looking for.”

Dogs aren’t born with the ability to report their findings to a handler, though. To teach that skill, handlers use a reward item. Semper loves a red rubber kong toy tied to a length of thick rope while Cedra prefers a yellow stuffed bird toy.

“Whatever that dog loves most should be the reward when the dog finds the subject, because it’s just a game to them,” LaPierre said. “You’re just teaching the game of, you find the person, you get to play, but your level of discipline has to be higher than their level of play.”

LaPierre, a Marine, got into training rescue dogs in 2006 shortly after he saw a story in an issue of VFW Magazine that featured Wilson’s husband, Hal, working the 9/11 ground-zero site with a rescue dog named Tsunami.

“We got into it because my husband was a Marine in Vietnam and he had post-traumatic stress disorder,” Wilson said. “The only place he felt safe was in the woods, so we hiked a lot. One day it came to me that we should do search and rescue.”

LaPierre contacted the Wilsons, who had been training dogs since 1998, and soon began obtaining the training and certificates necessary to breed and handle search and rescue dogs.

His desire to get involved came after a search and rescue team found his friend’s body on the side of a mountain. Even though dogs were not used in that search, LaPierre said his love of animals inspired him to include them in his training.

“My friend went hunting, and it was warm out,” LaPierre said. “It ended up starting to snow, and I believe he got hypothermia and died. That triggered my wanting to get involved.”

Contact Shaun Kittle at 891-2600 ext. 25 or