“The nose can work when the eyes can’t.”
That quote from Cathy Schneider could arguably be the motto behind the Douglas County Search and Rescue’s K-9 team as the dogs bound off through the woods, searching for missing people by trailing their scent or sniffing the air.
Schneider and Linda Coffel run the team, and while the pair argues over who is number one and who is number two (neither wants to be number one), it’s safe to say they both come with a lot of experience.
Schneider has been doing canine search and rescue training since 1996 and Coffel has been training for 20 years.
They put in a tremendous amount of training. The K-9 handlers meet as a group once a week, and members will often do their own training outside of that.
Coffel estimates she trains around 10 hours a week.
Schneider said it’s important to always focus on the fun aspect of training for the animals.
“This has got to be a game to the dogs right up until we retire them,” Schneider said.
Coffel got started in search and rescue because she used to do American Kennel Club tracking, and had a friend that decided to start the K9 search group.
“I said ‘Hey wait I want to be part of this too,’” Coffel said.
Now, she’s working with her fifth dog, Riddle, a Springer Spaniel.
Not only does Riddle’s hunting dog background help with search work, but size is also a factor for Coffel if the dog were to get injured.
“I can throw a 50-pound dog over my shoulder if I have to,” Coffel said.
One of Schneider’s much smaller dogs, a Pomeranian-Papillon mix named Puffin, does human remains searches and firearms detection.
“It’s more about if they can do the job and they’re physically capable of handling the terrain,” Schneider said.
But when dogs are out in rough terrain, Schneider said there’s always a risk of them getting injured.
“They’re so motivated it’s not unusual for them to cut a foot or jam themselves on a stick,” Schneider said.
She recalled one time when Puffin took off through the woods following a scent.
She knew she couldn’t call him off of his scent, because he was doing his job, but he was still a ten-pound dog all alone in the woods.
“It’s like sending your kid off the school,” Schneider said.
Now, she attaches GPS trackers to her dogs so she’s able to find them if she needs to.
Right now, Coffel said four dogs in the group are state certified: Riddle, Puffin, Max and Lucy.
To be certified, Coffel said dogs go out in a 2-acre area with six scent sources; the dog has to find at least four of them.
Before the dogs can even be certified, the handlers have to become ground searchers, a process that takes about a year.
Coffel said it’s usually Type A personalities that are attracted to becoming a search and rescue handler.
“It’s people like that like the outdoors, want to do community service, love working with their animals,” she said.
For Schneider, it’s about teamwork.
“It’s not just about being the one that finds the missing party, it’s about being part of the team and eliminating places where the person is not,” Schneider said.
When Coffel is out searching with her dog, she said, she uses gauze pads as a scent article, rubbing it on items like clothing, bedding or shoes.
When they get a call and the dog starts tracking a scent, handlers just have to believe in the hours and hours of training they’ve put in.
“You’re flying high,” Coffel said, but added that she needs to remind herself to trust the dog.
“It’s like, ‘OK she’s on,’ but it’s also like, ‘I hope she’s going the right way,’” Coffel said.
Schneider said being a handler is about watching the dog’s body language, and understanding when they’re fearful or have lost a scent.
When handlers are out searching they always have a flanker following behind so they can focus on their dog.
Schneider said dogs are especially advantageous to searches when someone is unconscious and not responding to sound sweeps.
That, and she said dogs are able to handle rough terrain much faster than humans can.
Training a search and rescue dog runs counter to traditional dog training, where the owner tells the dog what to do and where to go.
“We are not telling an air scent dog where to go, we tell them what we want them to find and they go out and search the area,” Schneider said, “We want that dog that will give us the finger and go follow the scent, and not follow us just to follow us.”
Schneider said when she starts searching in a different direction, her dog Max will wait until she starts going the right way.
“He’ll sit down and say I’m not coming with you because the scent is over here,” she said.
Coffel said they’ll go to seminars to learn new information and bring it back to the group.
In June, she and Schneider plan to go to a cadaver training in San Luis Obispo.
Previously, they went to a body farm, also known as a forensic anthropology research facility, in Texas to train, so the dogs can train to smell for decomposition.
K-9 teams have the ability to search for a recently deceased body in a 2-5 acre area.
Schneider said handlers have to be passionate, and if they’re just in it for that one save, they’ll get burned out if they’re not passionate about the process — which takes around two years to get certified.
“So you have to love what you’re doing and part of that is knowing you’re appreciated and the support that comes down from up above,” she said.
Now that Schneider is 69, she said she hopes to leave behind a top-notch K-9 search and rescue team.
“Of every place that I have done this Douglas County is far above the best one I’ve ever worked for,” Schneider said. “They are very serious and they appreciate the fact that they’re asking that much of us as volunteers.”