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Volunteer insight: hiding so the noses can practice

Updated: Feb 2, 2021

I spent Thursday in the woods helping search and rescue dogs, their handlers and other volunteers with training.

I was not sure what to expect, but I assumed it would go something like this:

-- Someone would lead me into the forest and tell me to stay there. -- I would hide, cold and bored, for hours. -- Eventually a dog would find me. -- The dog would lead the handler to me. -- I would try to not complain about the cold or boredom. -- I would fail at the not-complaining. -- I would drive home.

But I was wrong. Thursday was not boring for one minute.

As I drove to the training site, all I knew was I didn't want to screw up my part. That meant I WOULD NOT start the day by showing up late.

I was told to meet the group at 10 a.m. in a county park, about an hour south of Pittsburgh. Fine. But I had no idea how to get there. They gave me longitude/latitude coordinates, which let me know I was in trouble.

GPS lady was confidently guiding me and I was on schedule when I saw a Turnpike toll booth ahead.

"Stay left at the fork," said GPS lady.

The Turnpike signs -- large signs, you could not say you did not notice them -- read "LEFT LANE EZ PASS" "RIGHT LANE CASH ONLY."

I did not have an EZ pass.

"Stay left," said GPS lady.

"But I don't have--"

"Stay left."

So I stayed left. Because surely the right lane would lead me to an exit and so far off course I would lose my signal and the cheerful but firm voice of GPS lady and my cool.

And after it was too late, as I sped along in the left lane under the rows of cameras mounted to catch toll-thiefs like me, I saw that the right lane allowed toll payers to simply re-enter the turnpike. No exit, no treachery, no being late to latlong coords 40.195234, -80.037286.

The irony is this: Many people become lost in remote areas because they trust their GPS.

Just last week a family from PA nearly died in the Grand Canyon when their GPS detoured them from a highway to a forest road that became impassable. The mom hiked 26 miles in a snow storm before search and rescue volunteers found her. She did not die, but park rangers call these situations "death by GPS."

We did not talk about case studies on Thursday, people they had searched for or death by GPS.

These volunteers use a compass and topographical map to get their bearings. (They handed one of these maps to me and I just laughed. It looks like a fingerprint. I said my job was to follow simple orders, not to think and definitely not to use a big fingerprint to find my way out of the woods.)

Photo showing topo maps.
This means what now?

Before I met search and rescue volunteers, I did not realize how technical the work is. I did not realize they trained constantly -- the dogs and the humans -- in all seasons and conditions, in caves and rivers and fields and strip mines and old buildings.

It seems obvious to me now that they plan strategy according to sun position, humidity level, wind direction and speed, elevation, terrain, how long the person has been missing. And many other variables. But I was surprised at all the MATH. I don't know what I thought ... maybe that they let the dogs loose and hoped for the best.

So I arrived on time and the volunteers were friendly and they had food. One took me on a long walk, maybe a half-mile loop from our cars through the woods and back to the group. He said we were "laying a scent trail for the dogs to follow."

This made no sense to me. It was 30 degrees and breezy when I left my house. I was dressed in multiple layers and a wool cap and gloves. What scent? Would the dogs sniff my shoes later?

This is where it gets crazy.

I learned that as I walked along, I was shedding thousands of skin cells into the air and ground and even into the cracks of the covered bridge we walked through. I learned that as I breathed and blinked, I was sort of melting into the air at a microscopic level.

And as I walked around blinking and exhaling and melting, me-pixels were floating and landing on the asphalt and wet bark and weeds. And the search and rescue dogs, which look like normal everyday dogs except for their bright orange vests, COULD SMELL THESE ME-PIXELS HOURS LATER.

It freaked me out. Bad enough that Bill Gates knows everything I do and now I find out I am depositing a "search history" as I walk to my car or through Giant Eagle. Everything I do leaves a trace as unique to me as a topographical map.

But then I saw the dogs. I saw them working.

I watched the German Shepherd racing in loops around us as we walked up the wide path into the woods. We did not know where the volunteer was hiding. The dog barked and barreled through the bushes and saplings, she dove into the frigid water and back out, barking and raising her nose. When she was silent, it meant she smelled a human being in the area.

After we had walked for about 10 minutes, she demanded that we leave the trail and follow her down the steep bank overgrown with thorns and weeds and through the creek and through it again.

We stood at the creek and watched as she ran halfway up the bank and (it was explained to me) lost the scent and turned to run back to the flat area below, to find the scent and, eventually, the volunteer who sat silently, face hidden, slouched on the log. After she found him she raced to us to bark with a very different tone, staring and staring at the handler and reporting that the human had been found and she would show where he was. It was fascinating.

She is 11+ years old and nothing was stopping her. Not roots or vines or slippery rocks in the freezing creek. What an athlete.

When it was time for the bloodhound to follow my trail, I handed my "smells like Mary" item (in a plastic bag) to the handler. Before I left the house, I pulled a tee shirt out of the laundry hamper and shoved it up under my shirt. I was not asked to bring a "smells like Mary" item but I thought it might come in handy for something.

I sat inside my car while the bloodhound was brought out of the truck. I had not seen him all day. He was 130 pounds. He was magnificent!

Bloodhound climbing up on lap of his handler.
Jakey the Bloodhound in all his glory.

And there he went with his handler and two others, on his very long lead, walking down the park road toward the woods. At some point, he would be presented with my tee shirt and he would understand that meant some of my pixels might be on the dirt or blowing in the winds and he should find them and follow them as far as he could and maybe I would be at the end.

It was moving to watch this group walk away. To sit in my car in the quiet and watch that enormous, alert dog and FEEL why we were doing these tasks in the woods on this winter day.

It was wondrous to think my cells -- my cells! -- had fallen from my face and five hours later this dog would be able to follow their trail through the windy smelly woods, where other people had walked, where animals were living and decomposing, where there were so many smells but yet he was expected to isolate the scent of the person from the tee shirt.

And he did. He pulled the volunteers so hard through the forest he nearly threw them into trees. They said he barreled through his task and then I saw them returning from the other side of the parking lot.

I stood with others near the cars and that huge bloodhound came right to me, there was no question. It is moving again as I write this. These dogs! This is wondrous.

I walked all day up and down hills in the cold. My shoes and socks got wet in the creek. I will be hearing from the Turnpike. It was the best day.

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