The SEADOGS search and rescue dogs train weekly, but sometimes the handlers need a little training, too.
The dog handlers for the Juneau-based K-9 search and rescue team met at Centennial Hall Friday afternoon after the Crime Conference to get a refresher course in sign-cutting and tracking.
Kneeling close to the ground to scrutinize blades of grass and using a tracking stick to measure shoe prints and strides, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air Enforcement Agent Robert “Dave” Reeve showed the handlers some tricks of the trade.
“What you’re looking for here is something that’s out of place. This grass is really hard to track,” Reeve said, pointing to the short grass in the Centennial Hall’s courtyard, “But if this was in the morning, that right there would pop right out at you.”
A ‘sign’ is a disturbance that someone creates walking through an area, Reeve said. But it doesn’t always have to be a foot or shoe print.
“It’s broken twigs, a blade of grass, something like that,” he said. “And ‘tracking’ is actually you have to have the sign in order to track somebody. Tracking is just following that sign until you find that person.”
Reeve walked the dog handlers through a range of issues, from how to split up their teams, what type of flares to use and what to do when a trail goes cold.
One of the most important tasks in sign-cutting and tracking is helping preserve the area when first arriving on scene, Reeve said. Often times people, including law enforcement members, walk around the area and disturb possible signs that can be followed.
“The big thing that I try to stress is that most law enforcement doesn’t think of doing this when they come up on a scene where they have a lost person or somebody that runs off, like a criminal or fugitive,” Reeve said. “They just haven’t been trained that way, so it’s just not in their thinking.”
“The first thing you want to do is tell everybody, ‘Stop what you’re doing. You don’t stomp all over the place,’” Reeve said. “You’ll have police officers, they’ll be on scene and wanting to do what they do. ... Try to make it their idea,” he added with a chuckle.
Reeve gave a four-hour lecture to law enforcement officials during the Alaska Peace Officers Association Crime Conference on Monday. He stayed until Friday to meet up with the SEADOGS, which stands for called Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search.
A former Border Patrol agent for the Tucson Sector in Arizona, Reeve said he worked for 10 years at “ground zero” for illegal immigration and drug trafficking. But what the general public might not know, he said, was that Border Patrol often conducts rescues in the desert.
“They get lost out there, they get left behind, and we track them out, and not every time — we try to save them — but a lot of times they perish,” he said.
He added, “This is something that — there’s a lot of lost people that were lost that didn’t make it that may have been found if someone had these skills.”
For SEADOGS, the stakes are equally as high, said Bruce Bower, the team manager for SEADOGS. And tracking skills will not only help handlers and dogs race to find missing persons in harsh weather and terrain, but to prevent the rescuers from become the rescuees.
Bowler said SEADOGS will frequently send just one person with their dog out on a search and drop them off in a helicopter in an unfamiliar location, which is why tracking training comes in handy.
“The one thing that we don’t want to do as a team is to create another victim,” Bowler said.
SEADOGS doesn’t have the time to train handlers on survival, map and compass and radio operations, Bowler said, which is why handlers must already possess those strong outdoor common sense skills before they apply to become a handler.
Occasionally, SEADOGS will meet up with trainers, such as Reeve, for refresher courses, Bowler said. The Crime Conference was one of those good opportunities, he added.
Reeve was an instructor at the U.S. Border Patrol Academy in Charleston, South Carolina, and at the Federal Law Enforcement Center in Glynco, Ga.
One of the tips Reeve gave to handlers was to do a little research.
“You’ve kind of got to be a little bit of a psychologist and understand how people think,” he said. “It would be equally important and helpful to you to read books from child psychologists who deal with lost kids, lost people.”
Reeve noted an author found that people of different ages have different patterns on where they go and how they react to being lost. Reeve said children under 3 don’t know they’re lost and continue to go to one “sparkling thing” to the next until they get hungry, which is when they start to get upset. Children ages 3 to about 7 tend to take good care of themselves when lost, he said.
“They actually do better than most adults do, but they have that don’t talk to a stranger thing, so they may not answer you if you’re calling for them,” Reeve said.
Older kids panic, and the first thing they do is start running around in a panic, he said.
“You might see their sign go way over there, then over there, then in a circle,” he said.
Most children normally travel around 1 1/2 miles, he said.
“These are not always the case, but it helps to know these things,” Reeve said.
Other factors to take into consideration are mental disorders or diseases that affect brain function, he said, whether it be autism, Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia.
“Every little thing you can find out about somebody from their people — you should be talking to their relatives, their friends before you go out, maybe have somebody talking to them as you’re going out and keeping in contact so you can maybe adjust what you’re doing as you’re going along,” Reeve said.
Bowler said SEADOGS has responded to three Alzheimer’s cases where a person went missing trying to find a place they remembered 50, 60, 70 years ago and was no longer in existence.
One of the last pieces of advice Reeve gave was to remember to “keep good calm.”
“If you don’t keep good calm, you really shouldn’t be going out there because you may be the next rescue.”
“I know you guys know that,” Reeve added. “I’m not telling you something you don’t know. But it’s good to keep reminding yourselves.”
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.