K9 Heroes

Monday, May 10, 2021

This week, we introduce a three-part series on CARDA, the California Rescue Dog Association.

The metal roof had certainly seen better days. Now, it lay on the ground in a collapsed heap, panels of steel jutting out in every direction. Bits of scorched hardware dotted the area haphazardly. Underneath it, chairs and tables were now nothing more than burnt rubble, their remains melting into a carpet of black debris.

And underneath it, Casey Rogers was struggling.

She looked in front of her, and then to the sides. Still on all fours, she craned her neck behind her, trying to locate a space, an opening — any kind of viable exit. She looked at her partner, hunkered down beside her, and he looked back at her. There was no way out. They were alone.

After a few moments, though, she felt him shift beside her. Suddenly, he was moving away, inching along on his stomach towards something. She watched, glued to her spot, as he retreated into the distance. Then, within minutes, he was crawling back towards her. The look in his eyes was unmistakable.

Follow me, they seemed to say.

And follow him she did. He turned around again, and this time she started to move, the two of them slinking away together. It was hot, it was grimy, and beads of sweat rolled down her temples as they wriggled forward. But she kept her eyes on the furry black tail in front of her. It was a light at the end of the tunnel, reminding her that she wasn’t alone — and just as they’d come together, they would go together. No one was leaving without the other.

“The dog and I looked at each other, and now he’s the only thing that I had to rely on,” said Rogers. “We spent our entire day trusting each other on how to get us out of there, or how to get us to the next section. It’s really hard to describe that bond.”

Rogers and her German Shepherd, Inkie, had been searching a senior center for fire victims, when they had crawled themselves into a difficult position. The collapsed roof hindered their movements and made it hard to see. But in the end, it was the bond between them that finally led them to safety.

This bond between Rogers and Inkie may seem like the typical one, borne out of years together as pet and loving master. But to Rogers, Inkie is not just a dog. He is also her partner. Together, he and Rogers have gone on 58 search missions, while Rogers herself has been on 63.

Since 2012, Rogers has served as president of the California Rescue Dog Association (CARDA), a statewide volunteer-based organization. Founded in 1976, it trains, certifies, and deploys search-and-rescue dogs to find lost and missing persons. Past missions have included locating victims of the Loma Prieta earthquake, the San Bruno pipeline explosion, and the Oklahoma City Bombing, among many others. Today, it has 120 certified dog teams all over California, and is the largest volunteer search dog organization in the country.

Despite the dangers that Rogers has faced on her missions, though, the reward is her biggest takeaway.

“The reason that I continue doing this is that it brings home the missing, and the closure to the families in most cases,” she said. “We’re able to give them some closure.”

She recalled how she felt during one of her very first searches. She and Inkie had been out searching, but enjoying the work nonetheless, as they were spending quality time together. After finishing their area, they boarded a car with another team to drive back down. They had lost radio communication back in the area, and so when the person was found later, deceased, they were still unaware. When they swung into the destination’s parking lot, she saw the chaplain informing his wife of the news, and something within her changed.

“Watching her reaction, and [seeing] her hit her knees — that whole thing, my entire philosophy and feelings about search-and-rescue changed,” said Rogers. “It wasn’t about me and my dog training and having a good time together anymore. This was about the closure for the families. This is pretty much the epitome of how I feel about our organization and what we do.”

Inkie is a C1 and C2-certified cadaver dog. In CARDA, cadaver dogs are considered a specialty certification. By the organization’s protocol, each CARDA dog must first begin training in either trailing or area search, depending on the handler’s choice. Once the dog has become certified in one of the two, the handler may then choose to certify them in specialties such as cadaver, water search, avalanche, and disaster.

Area search dogs, which work off-leash, are able to detect any trace of human scent around them. With their noses in the air, they can identify airborne particles of human scent “from scratch”— meaning that no prior clue, such as a scent article or last-seen starting point, is needed. From there, they work “inwards,” following the air currents’ scent patterns to hone in on the source of the smell.

A well-trained area search dog can accomplish this feat in even the most challenging of conditions, such as in the dark, over long distances, or through dense shrubbery.

Upon locating the source — such as a missing person — all CARDA search dogs must perform a “recall-refind.” This means that after finding the source, the dog must return to and alert the handler, and then “refind” the person, this time with the handler in tow.

Trailing dogs, on the other hand, work on long leashes to follow a specific person’s scent trail. Because the goal is to find one particular person, these dogs need a scent guide, such as the victim’s sock or glove, to identify which scent to track.

They typically begin at the person’s last-seen point, and then follow along, picking up the scent deposited on the ground.

In a perfect world, this scent trail would very closely approximate the person’s actual path taken. However, factors such as wind, temperature, humidity, and even the presence of moving vehicles, may scatter the scent, distorting the reliability of its trail.

Thus, in addition to the dogs’ findings, handlers must have a strong working knowledge of scent theory, in order to deduce the person’s most likely traveled path.

“Trailing is like — so, imagine a school at lunch, and then lunch is over, and you’re told, ‘Okay, go follow the person that was in black, and see where they walked.’” said Jeremy Portje, a trailing handler and PR Committee Chair for CARDA.

“Everybody just walked there, and you have to follow that one path through all of that. But we as trailing dogs follow scent. We don’t follow people. The person is lost, and we’re following their scent, which can move.

“And so [I have to use] my working knowledge of wind and terrain and how that affects scent. I can see — okay, he turned left, but the wind is blowing to the left. If the person had walked there, there would be no scent there. If the person walked to the right, and the wind is blowing to the left, and it’s of course blowing from the right, we’re going to go check to the right instead. That kind of thing.”

For specialty certifications such as human remains detection, understanding how scent travels is just one of the basics. Cadaver dogs like Inkie are cross-trained to find not only live persons, but also deceased ones, which emit a whole host of smells unique from those of the living.

Human remains have a very specific scent “fingerprint” that is different from that of animal remains. Beside the fact that every corpse has its own unique composition and chemistry, a corpse produces unique odors at each stage of decomposition. The scents may differ depending on temperature, scavengers, and location of the body, among other things.

For example, a corpse in a hot, humid location will decay faster and differently than one in a cool, dry place.

But a well-trained cadaver dog can accurately locate a human body in virtually any stage of decomposition. They can detect human remains buried deep within the ground, with some measures estimating a ballpark of up to 15 feet below. They can even indicate the prior presence of a corpse, after the body has been moved elsewhere.

The job becomes slightly more difficult with a very recently deceased victim, as the decomposition process has yet to fully occur. Extremely old, dried bones are also more challenging to find, as the tissue and marrow have completely disintegrated. Thus, there is an additional subset of search dogs, known as historical human remains detection dogs, that specialize in finding historic and prehistoric human remains.

However, to a dog, decomposition is decomposition. Whatever is in the “scent portrait” of human death, they can identify it, isolate it, and locate it — even down to something as small as blood on the end of a Q-tip.

This makes cadaver dogs indispensable in situations such as disaster aftermaths and crime scenes — scenarios in which a body is needed to provide closure, or to serve as definitive confirmation of murder.

Read next week's story to find out how dogs are chosen and trained to accomplish their crucial duties.