Dogs trained in Olean to put their noses to work

By Julia Sampson
Olean Times Herald

Not all dogs smell the same.

Actually, Steven Phillips, owner of Command Dogs of Olean, said that an average dog has 200 to 250 million scent cells and if you lay the membrane lining in a dog’s nose out, its scent system can cover the entire animal’s body.

Search and rescue dogs and their abilities have been in the news a lot recently because of the devastation in Haiti. Special dogs with special skills are being trained and used right here in the Olean area.

Mr. Phillips has been training dogs for the past 30 years.

“I train residential dogs as well as police dogs,” he said. “I sort of fell into it. Years ago I wanted a doberman, but I knew that such a big dog would need to be trained properly so I worked with a New York state trooper and it sparked an interest.”

Today he owns a German shepherd named Persia, whom he is training for narcotics and search and rescue detection.

New York State Police Sgt. Timothy Fischer said dogs do not smell human “odor” as humans do.

“Human scent is called ‘rafts’ - skin cells - it’s made up of a person’s age, gender, what they’ve eaten,” Sgt. Fischer said. “What you and I think of in terms of human odor is different for dogs.”

The 27-year handler is in charge of the state police K-9 unit out of Albany.

Consequently, search and rescue dogs are trained a bit differently, depending on their area of “expertise.”

“Our dogs are first trained as tracking dogs,” said Sgt. Fischer. “Tracking dogs pick up a scent that is anywhere from 4 hours old to even a couple of days old.”

These scents are transfers to objects, Mr. Phillips said.

“Say a K-9 unit is called to a bank robbery,” he said. “The dog will sniff the last place the suspect touched and start the trail from there.”

Often, the animal does not “find” the criminal, Mr. Phillips explained; however, the dog does give the police an idea of the route the person took. In addition, Mr. Phillips reiterates that the main function of a police dog is as a “locating tool” - drugs, explosives and other evidence.

According to Sgt. Fischer, tracking dogs are taken to the scene of the crime and will track a person until they get within a certain distance, maybe 100 yards or so, and then they will “air scent” to finish locating the person.

“Air scenting is when a dog lifts his nose into the air to pick up human scent,” he said.

Some search and rescue dogs are not trained for tracking, but all tracking dogs are trained for “air scenting.”

“There does not have to be a specific last known location point for an air-scenting dog to do their job,” Sgt. Fischer explained. “Is it easier when that is known? Yes, but it is not essential for the animal when it assists in a search.”

Urban search and rescue dogs are trained specifically to locate the living as well as locating cadaver odor in and around building collapse.

“These dogs are able to navigate building rubble to locate both the living and deceased,” Sgt. Fischer said. “It is completely different from a search for a lost or missing person in rural areas.”

“The dogs have to know what to do; how to navigate certain terrain,” said Mr. Phillips. “A dog that is trained in Urban rescue would not know what to do in a rural setting. It isn’t trained for that.”

Mr. Phillips also dispels the perception that all search and rescue dogs are police dogs.

“The majority of search and rescue dogs are owned by a private person,” he said. “Also, the only job the dog handler has is to be able to read the dog and let those in authority know what the dog is saying. The dog and handler are simply a tool.”

While it takes quite a bit of time and dedication to train a dog for search and rescue, stated the Command Dogs business owner, cadaver dogs are the hardest to train.

“It is illegal in New York to use human body parts for (cadaver) training, therefore we use pseudo scents to train the dogs,” he said. “Three scents are used for training: above ground cadaver scent, buried scent and human distress scent - the odor produced in humans via the flight or fight response.”

Additionally, dogs are trained differently for water rescue. “They have to be able to work on a boat,” said Mr. Phillips.

As with obedience training, the dog has to think it’s playing a game when it’s working during a search and rescue, it has to be fun,” said Mr. Phillips, who is certified through the DEA and licensed through New York state to train dogs for drug detection, and holds a license through both the state and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms to train dogs for explosives.

“Training dogs, whether for obedience or otherwise, is about positive motivation,” he said.

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