Mack, a 6-week-old McNab Shepherd puppy, squirmed in Columbus Fire and Rescue engineer Eric Minga’s arms on their first day together as search dog-in-training and handler at the fire station on 31st Avenue North Friday.
“When he finds his first person, it’s going to feel like my kid’s just hit a home run,” Minga said proudly as Mack whined.
In the field behind them, 3-month-old Jett, a Belgian Malinois puppy who had been barking at Mack all afternoon, dashed across the grass to retrieve a dog toy from another firefighter while his handler, firefighter Tyler Jones, looked on.
The two dogs are CFR’s newest search and rescue dogs, which — if their training goes as planned — will be certified to find missing people within 12 months.
The puppies were chosen and are being trained by Kathy Doty and Dee Maples of GTR K9 Search Team, which trains search dogs and cadaver dogs. Doty and Maples have worked with CFR for several years helping look for people who go missing locally and travel with CFR’s task force around the state and region to disaster areas to help with search and rescue. Maples’ dog, another Belgian Malinois named Parker, even helped in the search for missing autistic man Chris Reed, who disappeared from his home on Jan. 22 only to be found three days later.
“Any time that I get a call right now, I call Miss Kathy and Miss Dee and they’ll come help me do a search,” said CFR engineer and search and rescue coordinator Michael Miller.
Doty and Maples picked out the new puppies for CFR after CFR’s older search dog of about 10 years retired a few months ago. That dog had been donated to CFR, Miller said. These puppies, each $600, were the first CFR have bought.
“We’re very excited,” he said. “You’d be surprised how many times we get called in on a missing person (case) — somebody that just walked away because of Alzheimer’s or autism.”
They get calls like that a handful of times per month, Miller said, though usually the person comes back within a few hours. Having the dogs on two different shifts, however, will help decrease response time when there is a serious case.
Doty said both Mack and Jett come from a long line of working dogs, and that their exuberant personalities make them even more qualified to train as K9 officers. Dog trainers look for puppies that tug on people’s clothes and nibble their hands — dogs pet owners are reluctant to keep, she said.
That’s because a lot of the training the puppies get is “against the rules” of what pet owners do, she said.
“Right now what we’re doing, we start them off chasing people,” she said. “…You want them chasing people and jumping up on people … because then they become victim loyal. We want them loyal to their victim.”
When the dogs follow a scent to the person, trainers want them to keep hold of the person with that scent so they don’t lose the victim again after finding them, she said.
Training the dogs
Doty has already begun working with the dogs’ handlers to train them. Jett, who has been training a little longer, knows the basic commands like “sit” and is now working on following scents.
“What they’re doing is tracking, trailing,” Doty said. “And it’s scent-discriminating. So in other words, if … you have a lost person, we can gather the scent of that person and give it to the dog and they should be able to walk through a crowd of people that have been … out there searching. And the dog should be able to pick up that particular scent and follow it (to) that individual person.”
Jones gives Jett the scent of a particular toy and then “hides” the toy — or at least has someone across the field hold onto it for him — and Jett has to follow the scent to the toy. It’s like a game to the puppy, Doty said.
Mack, being several weeks younger than Jett, is a little behind him on training and spent the afternoon just getting to know his handler, who he’ll live with for the rest of his career.
This doesn’t bother Minga, who has five dogs as pets already.
“I’m not new to dogs, just this dog,” he said.
Choosing the handlers
Minga’s and Jones’ love of dogs is part of the reason Miller, Doty and Maples chose them to be the puppies’ handlers.
“I went to each shift and talked to the guys, especially guys that got a lot of time before they retire,” Miller said.
Once he’d narrowed down the firefighters and engineers who were interested, Miller talked with Doty and Maples as well as Fire Chief Martin Andrews. The four of them eventually narrowed the handlers to Minga and Jones.
Both Jones and Minga named their dogs, and will live with them and train with them even after they’re certified. The dogs will be on-call when they are and will be loyal to their handler rather than other dogs.
Once certified, the dogs will housed at Station 2, Miller said.
The handlers and trainers all love dogs — that’s why they work with them, Maples said. But there’s more to what they do than just getting to work with the puppies.
“I hope and pray that each time we go out, whether it’s a live find or a cadaver, that we can bring closure to a family one way or the other,” Doty said. “That’s my ultimate goal, to bring somebody home or to bring closure.”
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