Search and rescue, unleashed

"Search!"

Nose in overdrive, Pele sprints to the far edge of a large clearing and immediately starts zigzagging back.

The German shepherd has spent most of her life learning to follow the smell of death, and in this October training session it takes her barely two minutes to find the bush where her owner hid a plastic bag containing remnants of a human placenta and some bloodied foam padding from the seat of a car involved in a fatal crash.

"Good girl!" calls Piedmont resident Mark Herrick as Pele alerts him to the discovery.

For decades, dog lovers have been teaching cadaver dogs like Pele to help law enforcement find the missing.

"We're just one little tool for them to get more information " and there are
times when it's a fabulous tool," said Adela Morris, founder of the Santa Clara County Sheriff Office's 12-member Canine Specialized Search Team.

Five dogs from Morris' group were used to search the Antioch-area property of Phillip and Nancy Garrido in the internationally publicized Jaycee Dugard kidnapping case.

Dogs' ability to recognize the odors produced at different stages of decomposition enables them not only to find people minutes after death but even years later, whether their bodies are intact or scattered in pieces as small as a single tooth.

Cadaver dogs are just one kind of search canine: An array of types performs specialized tasks that have evolved since the animals were used to find wounded soldiers during
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World War II.

Some look for drowning victims, skiers buried in avalanches or victims trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings. Others are trained to cover large areas quickly as they sniff air currents for the scent of a living person. Some work more slowly, nose glued to the ground as they track a particular individual.

Search dogs have found missing Alzheimer's patients and 8-year-old Girl Scouts lost on camping trips. They solved the mystery of an East Bay motorcyclist who had vanished years earlier by finding bones that wild animals had squirreled away in a tree. And they looked for bodies in the wake of a head-on collision between two trains in Los Angeles.

There are even subspecialties among cadaver dogs, some of which focus on ferreting out small quantities of skeletonized, buried human remains.

The skill comes in handy not just at crime scenes, but also when archaeologists look for unmarked American Indian graves or would-be developers have records showing a pioneer cemetery on their property but no headstones to identify its exact location.

Other cadaver dogs look for the recently dead lying in the open or in a shallow grave and who might have been dismembered in a violent crime or accident.

The training required to bring dogs to this level of sophistication guarantees that they are an elite minority: There are only 188 in California, ranging from rat terriers and mastiffs to boxers and Siberian huskies, all owned by volunteers for whom search and rescue work is a labor-intensive love.

What matters isn't the pedigree but the dog's desire to work, said Carol Shapiro, president of the California Rescue Dog Association.

The work isn't for the casual hobbyist looking for an offbeat way to have some fun with Fido: These search teams devote innumerable hours and serious sums of money to what they consider a lifestyle.

Morris' group routinely meets three times a week for training sessions that last two to four hours. Castro Valley resident Eric Sheets says it's normal for him to put in a dozen hours a week.

For handlers training their first dog, it can take about two years before their partner is what they call "mission ready," meaning it meets the guidelines of the state's Emergency Management Agency.

Dog owners also face a learning curve. They must know how to read a compass and topographical maps, be willing to get wet and muddy, and make do without a latrine, Shapiro said.

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