By Debbie Burke
Happy New Year! Welcome back after TKZ’s annual hiatus.
How about kicking off 2022 with a dog story?
Back in 2020, I interviewed Kerrie Garges, a search and rescue volunteer from Pennsylvania, about a bombing that killed three people.
Kerrie has spent years training her three Labrador Retrievers, Ace, Luna, and Gauge, in various search disciplines (air scent, article scent, human remains, etc.).
A few weeks ago, Kerrie and I reconnected and she brought me up to date on her dogs and their recent activities.
Sadly, Ace passed away last year from bone cancer. Luna is retired because her hips bothered her on long searches but she quite happily watches TV.
Kerrie’s big news was about Gauge. When we last chatted, he was still a rambunctious puppy. He’s now 2 ½ and has recently been certified in Live Find and Article Search.
And he’s now officially a hero.
Article search involves items that have been worn by or touched by a person that their scent clings to (examples: fabric, leather, metal, plastic). To test dogs, an area 75’ by 75’ is marked off with flags. Within that area, five scent articles are randomly hidden. Dogs and handlers then wait two hours while scent dissipates, simulating conditions that may occur in real-life searches for a lost person.
One at a time, dogs are turned loose in the area with the command “Search” and given 15 minutes to find scent articles. The quest is confusing because other dogs and handlers leave their own scent as well.
Gauge located four articles in the allotted 15-minute time, earning “Article Search” certification. Four hours later, when scent had dissipated even more, he found the fifth article.
Gauge is also training for Human Remains Detection (HRD). According to Kerrie, patients at the University of Ohio hospital can opt to donate their bodies for search work. The Center for Forensics Training Education (CFTE) procures the remains and uses them for training seminars, one of which Kerrie and Gauge participated in last summer.
Not surprisingly, a recently deceased body gives off a much stronger scent than a body that has decomposed for a long period of time.
Cadaver dogs have located bodies of crime victims concealed for 15+ years. But canine noses are even more powerful than previously realized.
In 2018, archaeologists in Croatia tested HRD dogs to see if they could locate burial vaults that radiocarbon dating determined were from more than 2700 years ago. Dogs alerted to limestone slabs where tiny fragments of human bone were uncovered, along with amber beads and other artifacts. Even when no visible skeletal remains were present, dogs still alerted, leading scientists to posit that fluids from decomposition leaked into the porous limestone where odor remained more than 2000 years later.
Back to Gauge’s training with fresher remains…
Kerrie says dogs are allowed to familiarize themselves by sniffing and exploring the recently deceased bodies, sometimes licking and walking on remains. A handler must take care not to give cues that might confuse the dog, such as expressing distaste.
That must be a challenge.
Gauge’s alert signal when he finds his target is to run back to Kerrie and jump on her.
One particularly hot training day, fluids had leaked onto the tarp the cadaver was laid on. Gauge sniffed while walking around in the fluids, then proceeded to alert Kerrie by exuberantly jumping up on her, sharing the odor of decomposition (decomp) clinging to his furry paws. Fortunately, she was wearing a rubberized coat that protected her…somewhat.
He was, after all, doing his job.
Being certified does not guarantee the dog and handler will be called out nor that they will have a successful outcome. After 12 long years of dog training, Kerrie had never had a live find until…
On October 8, 2021, she answered a call at 5:30 p.m. at the height of rush hour traffic. She was an hour away from the Gordon Natural Area for Environmental Studies, a 126-acre park on the property of the University of West Chester, Pennsylvania. Coincidentally, the park had been a training area for search dogs.
In fact, the man who had given permission to use the area for training was the very one who went missing that evening.
He and his wife were trail keepers. They had ridden a UTV to the end of a service road to work. The wife walked down to their base, expecting the husband to return on the UTV. She waited but he never showed up. His phone pinged to the left of the service road but he was not there.
He was diabetic so there was concern a medical issue had befallen him.
Two air scent dogs and one trailing dog, their handlers, a nurse, a paramedic, and other volunteers were deployed to search. Kerrie and Gauge did a “quick hastie”, a preliminary reconnaissance check, hiking to the top of the hill where the UTV was found. From there, a grid search began as the three dog teams split up to cover their assigned areas.
The searchers coordinated the different styles of their dogs with the terrain—Gauge is a “long ranger” while the other two stuck close to their handlers.
Soon the sun was down, leaving the area in darkness. Gauge wore a lighted vest and a bell to allow Kerrie to keep track of him. “Darkness brings out the dog’s nose,” she says, “because he can’t see distractions, like deer, during night searches.”
She adds, “You’re running on adrenaline because you’re trying to save a life.”
The terrain was difficult–steep and littered with fallen trees. There were no trails to follow. She recalls that she and her two flankers “did a lot of butt climbing over logs.”
Gauge indicated the scent seemed to be flowing down from the top of the hill and pooling in a lower area.
Then he alerted.
Kerrie couldn’t see any sign of the missing man until she clambered around a four-foot-diameter log.
Tucked beside the log lay the lost man, unresponsive and ashy-gray. Gauge was standing over him. Unlike training sessions where the dog normally was exuberant at finding the target, this time he seemed subdued, perhaps recognizing the seriousness of the man’s condition.
“In the shape he was in, I don’t know how he could have gotten there,” Kerrie says.
The nurse with Kerrie had glucose in her pack. While she and the paramedic tended to the man, Kerrie took Gauge aside, rewarding him with a game of tug of war.
The man was transported for care and recovered.
Gauge scored a live find with only two years of training.
And he became a TV star:
Thank you, Kerrie, Gauge, and other search and rescue volunteers for your lifesaving work!
Meet a search dog who turns up unexpected gruesome discoveries in Debbie Burke’s thriller, Dead Man’s Bluff.