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Search-and-rescue dogs double as pampered pets

HURRICANE — Mike and Molly are search-and-rescue volunteers, ready to respond whenever there are lost hikers or other emergencies that call for their expertise.

Both are valued members of Washington County Sheriff's K-9 Search and Rescue, a volunteer group based in Hurricane. They're also charming, furry and love treats — not surprising, since the pair are highly trained search dogs who double as pampered pets in their spare time.

The canines spend much of their time at the group's headquarters, Hurricane's Zion Veterinary Clinic, the private practice of Dr. Jean Hooks.

Hooks, founder and commander of the group, has more than a decade of experience in K-9 search and rescue. She was part of a FEMA team of search dogs and handlers that combed the wreckage after the Oklahoma City bombing. She ran a veterinary practice in Maryland before moving to southern Utah in 1997, and before that served as the first woman ever commissioned in the Army Veterinary Corps.

Hooks started the Washington County Search and Rescue group in 1998 as a way to give something back to her community. Each weekend, she and other team members take their dogs into the wilderness to reinforce the animals' training and make sure both dogs and humans are ready when emergencies arise.

On a recent Saturday, Hooks and detective Sgt. Casey Thacker, a K-9 officer with the Washington County Sheriff's Office who works with the group, went to the Red Cliffs Reserve near Hurricane for an afternoon of practice.

In a series of exercises, they challenged the dogs to find people in situations similar to what they might encounter in a real emergency. Using two-way radios to communicate, Thacker and Hooks each took turns hiking some distance away and allowing each dog to find them.

Hooks' dog, Mike, a Labrador retriever, is trained as an "air scent" dog, meaning he can track a person from subtle aromas hanging in the air. He's 10 months old and hasn't been on any real searches yet, but the talented pup is already skilled in a number of tracking methods.

"As we walk along, we leave a trail of skin cells that have sloughed off our bodies," Hooks said. "We're kind of like Pigpen in the Charlie Brown cartoons. We can't see it, but an air scent dog can smell it."

Air scent dogs are experts at finding missing persons when there is no clear trail, and a group of such dogs can cover a large area in a very short period. They run unleashed as they search, and are trained to return and get their handlers when they locate someone.

Molly, Thacker's bloodhound, is about 2 years old and a bit of a veteran, since her day job as a search dog for the Washington County Sheriff's Office has involved her in many law enforcement cases.

Thacker says Molly is capable of following a trail up to 48 hours old. When she's on a scent, the dog focuses intently and can run for long distances until she locates the source.

For that reason, Thacker keeps her on a sturdy harness and lead during training and actual searches. However, that also means that wherever Molly goes, he goes. Walking next to a particularly steep incline, Thacker noted wryly, "If we were searching and she decided to go straight up this hill, I'd just have to go with her."

Practice sessions can be just as much about training humans as dogs. Excellent physical condition is a prerequisite for search dog handlers, who must be able to keep up with their canine partners. Hooks said that while she is always looking for people who want to join the group, prospective team members need to be aware of the ongoing commitment in time, training and physical effort involved.

She and other group members typically train at least 10 hours a week with the dogs and must be ready to respond to emergencies at all hours. Furthermore, K-9 teams often join a search after human efforts have failed. For dogs and handlers, this can mean lengthy treks over unfamiliar ground in the middle of the night.

Thacker said that while it might take human searchers days to cover an area, dogs can cover the same ground in a matter of hours, often with more effective results. Last August, Molly showed exactly why a well-trained dog can be a valuable asset to law enforcement, during a training session that turned into the real thing.

The sheriff's department found the body of a man, who had been missing for a month, in a meadow near his home. Officers searched the area and found nothing to indicate how the man had died, and the decomposed body was taken to the medical examiner for an autopsy.

Meanwhile, the team obtained permission to use the area for search-and-rescue practice. They figured that since officials had only recently removed the body, there would still be plenty of scent left on the ground for the dogs to track.

Molly quickly located the spot where the body was found and began scanning the ground nearby. Soon she was sniffing an area on the far side of a fence next to the site. Suddenly, Thacker let out a shout.

Molly had discovered a shotgun in the dirt. The medical examiner's report later revealed that the man had died of a shotgun wound to the chest. The position of the fallen gun, the victim's wounds, and other evidence led the sheriff's department to conclude that he had been climbing over the fence when the gun went off accidentally and killed him.

Had Molly not found the weapon, the department would have considered the event an open murder investigation. Her astute nose solved the case.

While some search canines are trained to attack, the dogs on Hooks' team simply find people. They typically search for missing children, senior citizens, lost hikers, and rarely, crime victims. Law enforcement authorities handle searches for dangerous fugitives, and the Sheriff's Department has a second K-9 officer with a trained attack dog. Hooks said her team doesn't deal with situations in which the people they search for might harm them or their animals.

For these dogs, training, rescue and even everyday life are great fun. Their human partners adore them and consider them part of the family, and they get the same royal treatment on the job. Lavish praise, kisses, cheers and abundant treats are all part of the celebration when a dog finds the person they've been searching for, whether in training or in a real emergency. Thacker said handlers go through incredible quantities of dog biscuits to make training a wonderful experience so the animals will do their best in every situation.

Snoozing contentedly in the back of the SUV on the way home, these two good-natured dogs look just like the lovable pets they are. However, when it's time for work, you can count on them and their humans to be up and out in a flash, ready to answer the call of duty.

For more information about Washington County K-9 Search and Rescue, call the Zion Vet Clinic at 435-635-4033.