Using their acute sense of smell, combined with solid training, search and rescue dogs are able to assist loved ones in finding a grandparent with dementia or a young child who has wandered off.
These highly skilled canines also are certified in human remains detection (HRD).
Monroe residents Cathy Kohut and Christine Clark are members of Resources in Search and Rescue (R-SAR), a three-year-old organization that works closely with police and fire departments throughout the state.
“We see ourselves as a resource for law enforcement,” Kohut said. “Our philosophy is that when we get a call, we go in, we do our job, and we leave. We are absolutely confidential and we follow whatever protocol has been set out by those in charge. We’re trained in crime scene preservation.”
Team members also are adept at navigation, search management, clue awareness, and radio communication.
In the past three years, R-SAR has participated in about a dozen searches. “We’re completely free,” Kohut said. “We rely solely on donations and grants for funding. Most of the time, though, our members pay for their own training, certification and equipment.”
A volunteer organization
Founded by Tracy Harding of Ansonia, R-SAR now works with five trained canines. While it is a volunteer organization — most of the team is employed full-time in the law enforcement, fire and EMS fields — members are committed to this highly specialized work.
Members are required to get certified every two years. Many opt to train and become affiliated with organizations such as the International Police Work Dog Association, North American Police Work Dog Association, Community Emergency Response Team, National Association for Search and Rescue, Delta Therapy Dogs, and International Critical Incident Stress Foundation.
Harding reportedly started R-SAR based upon the heroic efforts of canine search and rescue teams at Ground Zero in the aftermath of 9/11.
“For many of us,” Clark said, “9/11 brought to light what dogs could do.”
Every Sunday the team gets together for training with their dogs for six to eight hours. Additionally, individuals spend hours during the week working one-on-one with their animals.
Strong bonds are inevitably forged between the dog and its handler.
“To be successful, you have to have that kind of connection,” said Celeste Robitaille, R-SAR vice president and a Stratford resident.
Robitaille is a high-ranking law enforcement official in Connecticut, where she is commander of the department’s canine unit.
Robitaille initially met Kohut and Clark about 18 months ago at one of R-SAR’s local demonstrations.
An experienced trainer, Robitaille explained that the dogs learn through a rewards system based upon positive reinforcement.
A towel is soaked with a specific odor. The idea is to imprint the scent in the dog’s memory so that, for a reward, he will search until the towel with the scent is found.
“Dogs learn through repetition,” Robitaille said.
Each dog specializes in a specific discipline. For example, one dog may excel at sniffing out bombs and another animal may be adept at searching for a live person who has gone missing.
The majority of R-SAR’s work, though, has been in HRD. Dogs are able to efficiently search large areas in a relatively short amount of time.
Each dog is certified to clear out a 40-acre area in two hours or less, Kohut said. “If the entire R-SAR team goes to the site, we can clear 200 acres in two hours,” she said.
Whether a search is to uncover human remains or a lost individual, there are not always positive outcomes. Kohut said the team measures its success on its ability to assist those in charge.
For example, by clearing a section of the woods, the police would know they should continue looking in another area.
“Where you start your active search is very important,” Kohut said. “You’re only as good as where you start.”
To help search and rescue dogs become familiar with different settings, training takes place in a variety of venues and terrains, both inside buildings and in exterior locales.
Clark said the community is welcome to watch — even participate in — a training session. “If someone would like to act as a subject and hide, we could use you,” Clark said.
R-SAR’s search and rescue dogs are “very gentle,” she emphasized.
“We can trust the dogs off-lead,” Clark said. “No matter if they came upon a lost Alzheimer’s patient or a lost kid, they wouldn’t scare them. They have the drive to do the job and they also have the necessary temperament to do it.”
A typical search and rescue dog is medium-sized and in the sporting, herding and hunting breeds.
R-SAR members and dogs are available for educational workshops and discussions. Last fall the Monroe community met some of the dogs and their trainers at a Monroe Fire Department open house.
For information go to www.rsarinc.com.