K-9 cops prove value again
At the same time, they ached to know what it meant: A family was about to start grieving the loss of a loved one.
Dexter is the golden retriever who Sunday, Feb. 26, found the body of 36-year-old Lee Vesely of Schofield in a field east of Janesville.
Dexter lives in Milwaukee and is certified in trailing, area scenting and finding cadavers on land or water. He’s a talented dog, and the members of the K-9 SOS team were proud of a job well done, said team member Rachel Kravitz of Madison.
“It’s good to know we could help,” Kravitz said. “We work really hard, and we train a lot. It’s a great feeling when you do what you train to do and you’re successful at it, but it’s very difficult to see how much pain the families go through. That hits all of us hard.”
The Clinton-based volunteer search-and-rescue team responded Feb. 25 and 26 while the Rock County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies searched for Vesely. Vesely’s crashed van was reported Thursday morning in a ditch on Highway 14 between Highway 140 and Emerald Grove in Bradford Township. His family by Thursday afternoon had contacted police to report him missing.
Thursday night, a German shepherd named Dex, who works with the Rock County Sheriff’s Office, searched the area around Vesely’s van. By that time, Vesely had not been in the van for at least 12 hours. His family had come and gone from the vehicle, leaving their scents in the area.
A 12-hour trail is too cold for Dex to follow, said Sgt. Wayne Hanson, who is the supervisor of the sheriff’s office’s K-9 unit and a former K-9 handler.
Officer Brian Daugherty agrees. Daugherty is the human half of the Beloit Police Department’s K-9 unit. He has worked with all four of the law enforcement dogs in Rock County—one at the sheriff’s office, one in Beloit and two in Janesville. The dogs have their limits, Daugherty said.
“Time is the biggest factor,” Daugherty said. “Weather is another huge factor. If we have cold temps or precipitation, it’s quickly going to make a trail that these dogs would be able to follow essentially disappear. In absolute perfect conditions, they can follow a trail that’s maybe a couple hours (old).”
The search continued Friday with Vesely’s family and Rock County deputies on foot and on snowmobiles. Friday night, the sheriff’s office made contact with Wisconsin K-9 SOS.
Kravitz and her teammates arrived Saturday morning and started searching. Unlike Dex and the other Rock County dogs, the K-9 SOS dogs are trained to seek and find cadavers as well as live people.
K-9 SOS provided a half dozen dogs Saturday and a like-sized team Sunday.
When called to assist a law enforcement agency, the K-9 SOS team provides a handler and a field support person with every dog. The team also has an incident commander that can work with law enforcement incident command.
In the field, team members log in writing and by GPS the areas they’ve searched, Kravitz said. They provide a log to law enforcement.
All day Saturday and for more than an hour Sunday, teams searched a 2-square-mile area around the site of Vesely’s crashed van. Volunteers on snowmobiles or ATV’s rode ahead to seek permission from landowners.
Search-and-rescue dogs are trained differently than law enforcement dogs because they have different jobs, Kravitz said. Law enforcement dogs typically are trained to follow the freshest trail through an area because they often are looking for an escaped suspect. If they followed old trails, they might get confused and end up trailing someone other than a fleeing suspect.
Search-and-rescue dogs, on the other hand, might be looking for someone who has been missing for several days, Kravitz said. They must search for a specific scent on the ground or in the air.
The key to successful search-and-rescue operations is analyzing the weather, the trail and other conditions and choosing the right dog for the job, Kravitz said. Searchers consider missing person behavior and scent theory, Kravitz said.
“When you’re out in your area, you’re thinking about what are your conditions, the temperature and the wind,” she said. “You’re thinking, ‘How can I do that effectively?’ Field support is trying to keep the handler safe, work the radio and make suggestions about search strategy.”
Dexter made the find after less than 90 minutes of searching Sunday morning. Kravitz thinks Dexter cast for a trail after smelling an item that belonged to Vesely. He then trailed the scent and alerted on Vesely’s body, Kravitz said.
“We can’t ask Dexter, ‘Were you smelling cadaver or were you smelling his trail?’ We don’t get to ask the dogs. You can watch the dog and guess.”
The training for law enforcement or search-and-rescue dogs is highly specific. Different dogs are trained in different skills. Handlers sometimes travel thousands of miles to get appropriate training for their dogs, said Rachel Kravitz with Wisconsin K-9 SOS, a volunteer search-and-rescue group based in Clinton.
Here are commonly trained skills:
Drug detection—According to their handlers, the four law enforcement dogs in Rock County spend most of their time on the job as drug-detection dogs. All four can detect marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines. The sheriff’s office has been doing some work training its dog, Dex, to detect synthetic marijuana, Sgt. Wayne Hanson said. The four law enforcement dogs in Rock County are dual-purpose dogs, which means they have patrol training in addition to drug-detection training.
Article searching—Searching for items that don’t belong in an area. A dog might find a hat or a tool dropped by a suspect, for example.
Tracking—Dogs can be trained in hot tracking or scent-specific tracking. Some can do both, Kravitz said.
Law enforcement dogs often are trained to find a “hot trail.” They will find the freshest trail in an area and follow it. This method is useful for tracking fleeing suspects or finding suspects immediately after burglaries.
“The way they’re root trained is to find any scent,” Mahaffey said. “Our job is to put him in a place where the suspect was the last person through there.”
Rock County’s law enforcement dogs can find scent-specific tracks, but it’s not typically their primary job, Mahaffey said.
Building searches—Police officers are regularly called to check unoccupied buildings after alarms sound. Dogs can do the job more quickly and efficiently than people, Mahaffey said. If Hardy finds a person in a building, he would alert officers and then stay with that person until he or she is removed from the building. Then Hardy would search for more people, Mahaffey said.
Suspect apprehension and officer protection—Law enforcement dogs are trained to protect their handlers. They also will attack suspects on command.
Cadaver detection—Rock County’s dogs are not trained in cadaver detection, but the dogs on the Wisconsin K-9 SOS team are trained in several methods of cadaver detection.
MEET THE K-9s AND THEIR HANDLERS
Three law enforcement agencies in Rock County have four K-9 units that work regularly in the county.
All four are dual-purpose dogs, which means they are trained to do more than one job. All four dogs in Rock County are trained as drug dogs and patrol dogs. The K-9 units are required to train regularly to maintain certification. On occasion, the four train together.
Dex is a 4-year-old German shepherd with the Rock County Sheriff’s Office. His handler is Dep. Shawn Nolan.
Hardy and Karo are German shepherds that work with the Janesville Police Department. Their handlers are officers Shaun Mahaffey and Glen Hageman.
Nick is a 7-year-old Belgian Malinois with the Beloit Police Department. His handler is officer Brian Daugherty.
ON THE WEB
Wisconsin K-9 SOS is a volunteer organization of trained handlers and search-and-rescue dogs. Currently the team includes 11 dogs, eight of which are certified by several national certifying bodies. Members of the Clinton-based team pay for their own training, which often includes travel.
The team responds to requests from law enforcement or emergency management agencies in the Midwest, although they make south-central Wisconsin a priority. The organization does not charge when it provides services such as the two-day missing person search in eastern Rock County last weekend. To learn more or to donate, visit k9sos.org.