Harleton K9 Unit    

Harleton K9 Unit    

Angelica Avila, Staff Writer

Remember the drug dog who paid us a visit this past month?  Well, did you know we have a K-9 unit that does something similar but with finding people?  Harleton’s K-9 unit  is a non-profit volunteer unit that is dedicated to the missing.  The members of the unit are Beck Oliver (Lead K9 Handler Harleton FD SAR K9 Team / Lead K9 Handler Piney Woods Search and Recovery K9 Team), Michelle Brewer (K9 Handler), Ron Brewer (K9 Handler), Annie Renee Murphy (K9 Handler), Scott Murphy (K9 Handler),  Lisa Baird (Flanker), Karen ‘Knuckles’ Philips (Administrator/Communications). 

I spoke to the leader of the unit Becky Oliver to learn more about them.

What are the qualifications for your job?  Do you have to have a degree or certification?  “SARTECH ll Certification through NASAR (National Association for Search and Rescue), Certified K9 Handler through GAK9 Tactical.” 

Why can’t we pet the dogs when they’re at work?  “All of their attention needs to be focused on the task at hand. Any distraction can potentially be the difference between life and death for a missing person or someone with a disability if they have a service dog.”  This is important to remember; yes, they are pretty and friendly dogs, but you shouldn’t pet them out of respect for the handler and the job they’re trying to do.

What type of training did you and the dogs have to do?  “2 years of continuous training is necessary to keep them “sharp.”  With the team and a lot of hours training with just the Handler and the K9.  The Handler must learn to “read” their dog.  As a dog is working they will give subtle signs that the Handler must pick up on.  Trailing dogs may raise or lower their tail a slight amount or even wag their tail, some may just turn their head or change their pace when they are what is commonly referred to as “in odor” – meaning they are on the trail of the missing person.  They have picked up the scent they were given to search for.  HRD K9’s commonly known as Cadaver dogs will often raise their nose higher in the air and smell.  If it’s the odor they are trained to find they will start working towards this area – it may be done in a wide cone shape fashion and as they get closer it narrows down into almost a straight line to the odor. Some dogs may speed up as they get closer to their source of the odor.  Cadaver dogs are trained on human bones, teeth or tissue.  The odor is unlike decomposing animal odor.  It is not uncommon to find deer or rabbit carcasses while searching – but the K9’s never pay attention to them. Cadaver dogs can also be certified in water recovery – my personal primary HRD K9 is Certified for land, buried, elevated, water and rubble like a collapsed structure.  With all Search and Rescue K9’s – at some point the dog may decide to “critter.”  We use this term because they are trailing after some “critter” that went through previously.  Once you learn to “read” your dog you notice this behavior immediately and get them refocused.  We certify through GAK9 Tactical.”

Are family members of missing people allowed to be at your searches?  “It is not as big of an issue if the family is there. It still adds another level of distraction to the Handlers and the K9’s though.  I personally don’t like not like family members present during searches for deceased individuals.  HRD K9’s are trained as mentioned prior and they receive a reward when they make this find.  As a Handler to keep the K9 interested and wanting to work – it has to be a big game and fun for them.  So when they make their find they are rewarded and praised and many times you just act goofy if that is what your dog responds to.  However, if family is there and the K9 sees that the family is obviously upset and in tears – they start thinking they did something wrong.  I personally have had a K9 “grieve” when they made the connection of the “find” to upset families.  I was unable to work him for almost two months.  As a Handler it’s hard to act “goofy” and excited if the family is there.  I personally tend to have a lot of empathy for the families and I am unable to follow through with my K9 like he needs.”

Do people have to pay for missing person searches?  “My teams NEVER charge for searching. Some agencies do and I strongly disagree with it. Why should only those families that can pay be allowed this resource?  We do this because we love what we do and helping the community.  We do accept donations but they are not necessary for local searches.  If we went far enough away that we had to stay several nights etc. donations to help cover our expenses would be appreciated but not required.  If this was the case we would probably do a fundraiser to get help from the community rather than burden the family with worrying about anything else.”

How old must you be to volunteer to help?  “At least 18, especially if they are involved in helping the HRD K9. Anyone (with parent’s permission) can volunteer to help train the Trailing K9’s and Area K9’s.  We always need people to hide for the K9’s.  It’s the adult version of ‘hide n’ seek.'”  I personally got to hide for the dogs and I can say it’s pretty fun.

What kinds of jobs can K-9 units help with?  “K9 units can help find missing persons whether it be a ‘live find’ or recovery of a deceased individual.  When natural disasters occur – K9 units are a huge asset because they can locate the deceased or ‘Area’ K9’s can clear a large area of terrain quickly and let the Handler know if any person is there.  Area dogs run off lead and can either look for a particular person designated by presenting a scent article owned by the person or search for ANY person in that area.  These dogs are tremendously helpful to any team due to the fact they can clear a very large area quickly.”

What type of dog(s) do you have on the team?  

Jake – 5.5 year old Bloodhound – Certified HRD (land, water, buried, elevated and rubble)

Ellie Mae – 6 year old Bloodhound – Certified Trailing, backup HRD

Scout – 1 year old Bloodhound – Training in HRD and Trailing

The Team also has:

Storm – 3 year old Rottweiler – Certified Trailing / Area Search

Annie – 3 year old Border Collie – Certified HRD (land, water, buried, elevated and rubble)

Rowdy – 1.5 year old German Shorthaired Pointer – Training in Trailing and HRD

Robin – 1.5 year old Bloodhound – Training in Trailing

Cap – 1 yr old Bloodhound – Training in Trailing

For information, you can visit their Facebook Page:  Harleton FD SAR K9 Team – Home