Somerset dogs train to search and rescue
Somerset Center — It was a test and Trace passed.
The Doberman trotted along the shoreline at Somerset Beach Campground, south of U.S. 12. He sniffed the grass, tasted the water and quickly identified the location of remains; medical waste hidden in the lake for a training exercise.
He sat at the spot to indicate his find and waited for his rewards, a ball and homemade liver snacks.
“They work cheap,” said Trace’s handler, Pam Burns, who lives near Midland.
Burns, part of the volunteer Michigan Search and Rescue group, was one of about 30 teams spending four days at the campground to run specially trained dogs and their handlers through various scenarios and simulations.
The participants come from all over the state and help with searches for drowning victims, missing or endangered people and discarded articles. They also aid law enforcement or other organizations in finding buried and hidden bodies or remains.
Burns was among the founding participants of the state search nonprofit organization, started in 2006 and funded by contributions and members’ pockets. It has grown from eight members to more than 70 and responds to 40 to 50 incidents every year.
The group maintains a high standard and has seen success, said Dave Holcomb of Muir, northwest of Lansing. Another founder, he boasts, for example, found that an elderly man was located in the snow and a suicide victim found in a river within minutes of his organization’s involvement.
“We demand you do your best. We cannot be second-best in the state,” said Holcomb, who distributed a long press release about the training and will launch into detailed explanations of the team’s mission, history and intentions. “I would never say my dog is ‘good enough.’”
He wants to spread the word of his group’s free services. “If you don’t know about us, you don’t call.”
The sooner his team is notified, the more likely the effort is a “live find” instead of a “recovery,” said Holcomb, a computer programmer who has a black Labrador named Ligeia.
Holcomb invited local police to the weekend training. Law enforcement has been reluctant to call in volunteers — Michigan Search and Rescue has had to distance itself from felon and former volunteer Sandi Anderson of the Midland area, who infamously planted evidence more than a decade ago for her dog Eagle to find. But attitudes are changing, he said.
The Jackson Citizen Patriot (http://bit.ly/2nPmMf8 ) reports Michigan Search and Rescue members are working to establish state standards for teams like theirs, Holcomb said. Presently, none exist. Michigan Search and Rescue has its own certification test. Dogs, for example, have to be able to scour 160 acres in two hours.
Its members take the training and the mission seriously.
“It’s rewarding. It’s very rewarding,” said Burns, a former veterinary clinic receptionist and horse trainer who is now retired.
She has had dogs all her life and became involved in search and rescue because it was not enough for her to train dogs for obedience; this was too dull. Trace is capable of detecting decomposition in water bodies and remains high-up in trees or buried beneath the ground.
“We do this for the victims. We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t get a lot out of it too,” said Holcomb’s wife Rayanne Chamberlain, who trains Quest, a Doberman, to make live finds at disaster sites.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” she said of a successful search. “You brought closure to a family if you find someone deceased or you reunite someone with a family.”
Such results make all the cold, icy or rainy treks searching for people in lousy weather and on holidays worthwhile, she said.
She was sitting in a lodge overlooking a lake as the organization broke for lunch.
Projected on a screen were the locations of various dogs, wearing GPS tracking devices.
In addition to the dog teams, the organization has necessary field support personnel, including a drone pilot who’s the “tech guy,” U.S. Postal Service worker Joel Bredow of Flint.
Sitting next to Bredow was Adam Kelly of Lansing. He is an athletic trainer with a German Shepherd/Malinois Zephyr, a former stray spotted outside a PetSmart during an adoption event.
He knew Zephyr was something special and the two are preparing for their first search.
Kelly joined the organization to be outdoors, active, spend time with his wife and to help people; something he has come to enjoy as a clinician.
He wore a tactical vest on a sunny, frigid day as Zephyr scoured an area dotted with empty campers.
Working with the dogs, watching them learn and seeing the lights come on in their heads is “so cool,” Chamberlain said. “For them, it’s just a game.”