In 1996, I had the opportunity to volunteer with a search and rescue K9 Unit. From the first moment I stepped behind a scent dog, I was hooked.
The partnership with a tracking dog transported me to a new level of communication and being. I had found what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Over the next several years I remained a SAR volunteer K9 handler but found myself frustrated with the technique-oriented training that I was tasked to use on my dogs. I felt the system was unnatural for my dog.
A kindred soul... an expert with a bloodhound... everything changes.
I was fortunate to meet the amazing Denny Adams at a law enforcement seminar he was teaching. Denny was a veteran bloodhound handler from Dakota Territory Search dogs. His methods of working with dogs was all about the dogs and he was successful in recovering many missing children and adults. The big burly man noticed my frustration. He took me aside and said the words that changed my life,
“You have a great little dog there. Ignore the group and trust your dog. He knows what he is doing. You need to consider search and rescue like a big club that has more to do with training a technique.”
Denny confirmed what I already thought. I had come to realize that it was necessary for SAR units to use a system of training people and dogs that is manageable, measurable and duplicatable . This system is necessary to manage the huge volume of volunteers involved across the U.S.
I left that seminar with renewed enthusiasm and a sense of purpose. Six months later I left SAR forever after a SAR dog trainer refused to reward my dog after he found her in record time; he had cut a half mile off the trail and got to the victim faster than the other trailing dogs. This was against the trailing rules. Something shifted inside me. I rewarded my dog and said, “which dog do you think the parents of a missing child wants out looking for their lost child, the dog that follows the exact trail or the dog that finds the child the fastest?”
I left SAR that day.
In 2004 my family pet went missing. It was a grievous experience and in 2005, I began working scent specific dogs to find missing pets. The sheer volume of cases, (over 1500 to date), we worked honed my skills and refined what I now thought of as tracking by nature. Over the years I found this to be the natural way in which a dog finds and follows prey or a subject. I opted to drop from my vocabulary all the titled techniques popular in SAR such as trailing dog, air scenting dog, man trailing dog and wilderness search dog. I learned that a dog must use all these skills to find a subject and the dog is the best one to decide which technique he needs to use. My partner of 13 years, K9 Cade taught me about recent scent trails vs. any scent trail. I added this to my repertoire of knowledge and began to train all our K9s to always find the most recent trail for the subject. These two premises are the cornerstones of Recovery Based Tracking. I use this natural dog-motivated system in all my work.
Missing people… my decision to return
Two lost person searches impacted my decision to return.
The search for Gerry Largay motivated me into serious consideration of returning to lost person work with Recovery Based Tracking dogs. Gerry Largay was a hiker that went missing along the Appalachian Trail . She was found deceased two years later. She had kept a diary and she had survived at least 26 days after she went missing. In at least three cases, K9 teams had been near her location . The teams were gridding which is a technique taught to a dog to find any human. It is usually not effective when there are multiple humans in the area. Gerry Largay died. She was less than 3,000 feet from the trail. Recovery Based Tracking dogs specifically trained to find the victim may have helped to find her.
In another instance I was contacted by the friend of a family with a child lost in the mountains. I was asked to come and search for the missing toddler as SAR and law enforcement were making no progress. I explained the politics of a search to the family friend and told them to get me permission to search for the child from those in charge of the search. The permission was not granted and that little boy died. He was just a quarter mile from where he went missing. That incident changed me forever.
I would work other missing person cases. Some at the request of law enforcement or the FBI but mostly I worked with the families of the lost. It would take me two more years before I would make the decision to formally return to search for missing and lost people. My hesitancy had nothing to do with whether my dogs could do it and everything to do with the politics and power struggles present during a search for the lost... then a phone call changed everything.
Fate comes calling...
A former client gave our phone number to a woman with a missing family member. The woman’s nephew had been missing over two weeks; there were no sightings or leads. Search parties and law enforcement could not find him and the family had been told search dogs would be of no use now as too much time had passed. The family did not listen and ultimately called us. I talked with the family and left for their location the next day.
When we arrived another search party was underway. There were people everywhere but this did not concern me as our dogs are scent specific and they would only look for the subject's scent presented. The family had done as I instructed and brought laundry and personal items belonging to the young man. I chose three scent articles including the young man’s socks and a hoody he wore the day before he went missing.
I had a team of four scent specific Recovery Based Tracking dogs with me. I decided to give K9 York the lead. I started the veteran dog from the parking lot of the apartment complex where the young man lived. The six-year-old Belgian Malinois, immediately alerted that he had found the young man’s most recent scent trail and began to track. He tracked out across a field and then turned west towards a tree line. Arriving at a narrow path in the woods York turned north and began to pull hard; his sign to me that the subject was close. We proceeded another 200 yards and York turned around and alerted. He then moved forward and I saw what he was alerting on. The young man was just ahead and he was deceased. I stopped our forward progress and held the scene while law enforcement arrived to take over.
Seven minutes had passed since York had begun his work. The 16 day old trail had been an easy one for him as the big dog has worked trails seven months old with little difficulty.
It was time to return…
Karin can be reached by calling