Everything Animals: The game of K-9 search and rescue
Austin commands Abel to "listen" while he calls for Halpin. If Halpin were to respond, Abel would follow the sound.
Mike Halpin hides in a pile of pallets, waiting for Abel to find him.
After Abel makes the find, he and Austin play tug.
Abel searches the entire area, including places his handler can't reach.
Essex Junction, Vermont - January 11, 2011
We often hear about search dogs helping police hunt for suspects but finding missing people takes an entirely different kind of skill.
New England K-9 Search and Rescue teams work with Vermont State Police and New Hampshire Fish and Game on a range of searches, from missing children to cold case murders. We joined two of Vermont's four teams to see how it's done, and what's really extraordinary is the amount of time these volunteers, who all have full-time jobs, spend making sure they're at the top of their game.
It's a game of hide and go seek, but a game where the stakes are incredibly high.
"Basically we're on 24/7," handler Mark Austin says. Austin has been volunteering with the group for a decade. "We can get called out in the middle of the night, 1 in the morning, 1 in the afternoon, doesn't matter, and we're usually on the road in about 15 to 20 minutes."
In order to be ready at the drop of a hat the teams train once a month as a group and at least once a week on their own.
"What we do is practice, practice, practice," says handler Mike Halpin. "What happens is when the dog makes a find of a person, in practice or for real, they get a toy, and that's the reward. It's all about the play."
For this particular practice Halpin trekked some distance away and hid behind a bunch of pallets. Then Austin and Abel set off to find him.
Police tracking dogs are trained to pick up a specific person's scent and follow where they walked. These dogs are different; they're taught to find the thing that doesn't belong, like a child in the middle of the woods.
"Our dogs are hunting the air for human scent, so it doesn't matter where they've walked or who's out there, we want the dog to be able to find that scent," Austin says.
Human beings shed tens of thousands of skin cells every minute. It's these cells the dogs are sniffing for and on this search it led Abel right to where Halpin was hiding.
Abel finds Halpin's scent and location, then goes back to alert Austin he's made the find. Once the find is made, the fun begins.
"This is what it's all about," Austin says while Abel tugs on the toy he's given after every find. "Once he makes the find, then he gets to play."
And when it's played right it's a game where everybody wins.
It takes about 18 months of training before a team is ready to go out into the field. For more information about New England K-9 Search and Rescue, visit www.nek9sar.org.