Parker: Search dog extraordinaire

Ohio water search dog participates in more than 40 searches


The bright orange inflatable boat moved slowly across the lake, quartering into the wind. A big black dog poised at the side leaning closer and closer to the water, slapping and biting at the surface. A passenger dropped a marker into the water, and the boat headed for shore.

A short time later, searchers found the body of a missing teenager, a few scant feet from the marker, and Parker had another successful search.

Parker is a Newfoundland, 168 pounds of shiny black Newfoundland. His partner is Shirley Mittendorf, a paramedic in Clermont County, Ohio and a long-time Newfoundland owner. Seven years old, the big dog has participated in 40-50 searches in his career. He doesn't do land searches any more, Mittendorf said. “Water is his forte.”

Last June, Parker helped find the body of a drowning victim in the Great Miami River at Miamisburg, Ohio. He didn't alert near the place the man went into the water, but barked further downstream, an unusual response for him, Mittendorf said. The body surfaced near where the Parker had barked.

Mittendorf attended a presentation by Susie Foley of Black Paws Search and Rescue at the Newfoundland National Specialty in Denver, Colorado and decided she had to have a puppy to train for this work. She purchased Parker from Foley at the age of eight weeks in 1989 and brought him home for his first year of socialization and training.

“I took that dog everywhere for a year,” Mittendorf said. Then it was back to Black Paws in Montana for the serious stuff.

Training an SAR dog

Only dogs of sound physical condition and temperament are suitable as search and rescue dogs. A dog that lacks stamina or responds badly to strangers is not a good candidate for the work. The dogs must endure the attention of a distraught family when a victim's body is found so a gentle nature with people is necessary.

Search and rescue dogs need confidence no matter where they work, so socialization must include exposure to different conditions, surfaces, people, and surroundings. Dogs must be accustomed to traffic noises, strangers, and boats and other modes of transportation so they can concentrate on the task at hand without fear or distraction. At Black Paws they learned to ride on ski-lifts and in helicopters for avalanche rescue.

Owners need training as well — training to read the wind, weather conditions, and water so they know how scent travels and training to trust their dogs.

Trust is the main ingredient in a dog-owner partnership for search and rescue.

“Don't second-guess your dog,” Mittendorf said, citing Parker's unusual bark at the Miamisburg search. Although the dog never barked on a search before, Mittendorf trusted him enough to know that the body would be found near that area of the river.

Training for an SAR dog begins when the pup is born. Exposure to different conditions and encouragement to solve problems open the puppy's mind to the more difficult tasks he will face when he goes to work. Young puppies can be taught to find people and things, and hiding places can become more obscure as the training goes on. Rewards are critical to the training — food treats and lots of praise make sure the dog enjoys his work.

Scent training is the most complex part of the program. It requires that owners learn how scent travels and that dogs learn to distinguish the scent of humans from everything else. “Like Pigpen in the Peanuts comic strip, we walk around enveloped in a virtually invisible cloud of diffused matter and gases,” said Sandy Bryson in Search Dog Training. “As each of us goes about our daily existence, parts of this cloud separate or drift away, some settling on the ground or adhering to objects in our path, other parts riding the wind for surprising distances.”

Some dogs scent these particles by sniffing the air; others work with their noses to the ground, picking up clues from grass and soil.

Scent can cling or be diffused, depending on the wind, weather, terrain, or humidity. It travels differently in mountains than valleys, on rainy days than on clear days, in dry, cold air than in warm, moist air. Handlers must be aware of the differences in order to give the dog the best chance for success.

Handlers of water search dogs must also know about currents that can carry bodies and affect the diffusion of scent.

Training a dog to follow a particular scent begins with short sessions in which the dog “finds” his master. Gradually increasing the distance, the owner hides in the house or the yard, behind furniture or shrubbery, in all kinds of weather. Next step is to work in unfamiliar terrain with the owner and to introduce other “victims.” The dog must learn to find people when the tracks aren't fresh, so aged tracks must be used. And they must learn to pick up scents in a random pattern, for lost children and old people seldom travel in a straight line.

Dogs doing land or disaster searches must learn to walk on debris, rocks, and other uneven surfaces. They cannot become so intent on the search that they cause more rubble to fall or end up a victim themselves.

SAR jobs

Local and federal law enforcement agencies use search dogs to seek out contraband such as smuggled food or drugs or to find bombs, to trail criminals, and to locate lawbreakers in a building. These dogs may be trained to sniff out particular substances or to bravely hold a criminal at bay until the officer arrives on the scene.

Search and rescue dogs add an extra dimension to the job — they find missing people for rescue if possible and to ease the minds of victims' family members who need to know what happened to a loved one. The task is often difficult for the dogs and their handlers; several dogs that worked the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City were retired after they completed their task of locating bodies and body parts, day after day.

Search dogs can be any breed or mix with a desire to work. Sporting dogs such as Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers make good search dogs because they generally like people and love to follow their noses. German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, Rottweilers, and other working and herding breeds have a work ethic that makes them good search and rescue prospects, according to Kathy Tepas of the Ohio Canine Search Team. But the work is not restricted to purebreds; Tepas said that mixed breed dogs with the right characteristics can also be trained to do the job.

Shirley Mittendorf and Parker work with the Hamilton County Sheriff's department and Loveland-Symmes Task Force 1. They frequently work on searches with teams from Ohio Canine, and Tepas has high praise for Parker and his owner.

“We just love working with Shirley,” Tepas said. “And Parker is wonderful . . . but don't put too many people in a boat with him!”

Parker's last search was in June in Miamisburg. They come in bunches, according to Mittendorf, and Parker will be ready for the next one, rain or shine, wind or calm, 32 degrees or 80 degrees.

Ohio Canine Search Team

The Ohio Canine Search Team is based in Columbus, Ohio. The team has 16 human members and 13 dogs certified for land searches. Ten of those dogs are also certified for water searches. The OCST breeds of dogs are Border Collie, Rhodesian Ridgeback, Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, German Shepherd, and Weimaraner, but any dog with a sound temperament and a strong work ethic is eligible.

The team started in 1991 when Kathy Tepas moved to Columbus from West Virginia and could not find a local search and rescue group. It's an all-volunteer organization with about 70 calls to its credit. Not all calls result in searches, Tepas said; the team often responds to a request and arrives to find the victim has already been located.

Tepas said that the group has an annual dog wash in June and offers speakers to clubs and groups to raise money for equipment. The group's boat is old and should be replaced, she said, and they need first aid kits for the dogs, more communications equipment, and gear such as life jackets and harness vests.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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