K9 search team ready to help out when emergencies arise

05/19/2013 6:39 AM

05/19/2013 6:39 AM

Unlike some, these guys don’t mind working on a Saturday.

Buddy was even howling, so eager was he to get to it at Andover Central Park.

He joined fellow members of the Sedgwick County Emergency Management K9 Search Team for weekly training to keep skills sharp.

Buddy, a yellow Labrador retriever, is used for area searches. Full of energy, he can search large areas quickly, his handler, Rod Routon, said.

“He covers a lot of area,” Routon said. “He loves doing it.”

Routon wears a stuffed duck on a clip on his pants. It’s been Buddy’s favorite toy ever since he was a pup. When Buddy finds someone during search and rescue missions, he runs to Routon, grabs the duck, takes it to the missing or injured person and drops it. That’s how Routon knows Buddy has found someone.

The system works well, Routon said, because sometimes they work at night and Routon can’t see what Buddy has found. His grabbing the duck tells Routon “mission accomplished.”

The K9 search team has 17 active handlers. A few are on leave of absence.

The 23 dogs are trained in three areas: tracking and trailing, area and wilderness search and human remains detection. Trailing dogs use scent to find a missing person. An item of clothing or other object with the person’s scent on it is given to the dog to sniff; the dog then tracks the scent.

Area search dogs such as Buddy quickly clear an area. They are used to search buildings and areas affected by disaster, dispatched to find people in rubble, for example.

The human remains detection dogs alert their handlers to any decomposing human scent in an area containing bones, teeth, tissue, blood or ashes. The team uses sponges from autopsies, teeth, bones, cremated remains and blood to train dogs.

“Every time I give blood, I have them draw an extra vial,” said Matt Kuestersteffen, a team officer who has two dogs, Foxy and Reba, trained to detect human remains.

The team was created in 2000 after the DeBruce grain elevator explosion near Haysville.

“They wished they’d had dogs to reply to that,” said Cynthia Weesner, the group’s new chief.

The team goes out only when called on by emergency officials or law enforcement.

Members work for free, and handlers and their dogs, who are certified as search and rescue K9s, are available 24/7.

Weesner’s dog, Samson, a German shepherd, is trained in trailing. She said “he took to it pretty quickly.”

Weesner has been involved with the group since 2006.

Dogs in the group vary in breed and size. Several are German shepherds.

The dogs work for rewards, usually food.

Josh Free’s dog, a German shepherd named Kobe, gets hamburgers.

Free worked with Kelly Chandler, an officer of the group, on Saturday. Chandler “hid” so Kobe could train in sniffing her out.

Free gave Kobe a glove that Chandler had rubbed on herself, and then Chandler wandered to an outbuilding in the park, winding over a creek and through some brush.

Kobe smelled the glove and then smelled anyone who was nearby to distinguish their scents.

“Kobe will scent discriminate,” Free said.

The hamburgers motivate him and keep him focused.

“If they get a reward, they decide, ‘I’d rather do this than chase a squirrel,’ ” Free said.

Kobe quickly found Chandler, who then moved and hid again.

Kobe got two hamburgers.

Chandler then worked one of her dogs, Smokey, a fluffy, whitish German shepherd..

“In a real search, we could deploy more than one dog at a time,” she said.

The group recruits volunteers to pose as victims. It recruits new members about once a year. Handlers are on probation for 120 days while they learn about crime scenes, first aid, emergency management and other aspects of searches. Their dogs are not with them during that time. Training a dog takes a year to a year-and-a-half, Weesner said.

Weesner got involved in part to give her dog something to do.

“When I got a shepherd, I thought, ‘You need a job,’ ” she said.

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