Orofino,Idaho-Window on the Clearwater
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Editor's note: We all have talents we can share with our communities, but sometimes we don't know quite where to look for those opportunities. This is the first in a series of monthly features in local media to highlight volunteer groups in the area. The object is to let people know about them and 'What I can do to make a difference'.

Desire and rewards all a part of the package

by Nancy C. Butler

We have all seen a dog follow a scent trail. Most of the time it is another dog or something else they think smells good, but what is the drive and reward to go out at all hours in all types of weather as a member the Clearwater County Sheriff's Search and Rescue (CCSSAR) Dog Team.

"I sometimes hear people say, 'Everyone wants to be a hero'," says Doug Huffman. "I suppose that is especially true in the Search and Rescue business. I once heard a search dog instructor describe it this way, 'everyone fantasizes about saving the lost child in the wilderness and carrying the child back to her mother's arms in front of a cheering crowd, but that isn't how it works in real life.' I have been with CCSSAR since 1998 and I haven't seen that fantasy search happen yet. More typically, we are out in the woods looking for a missing berry picker when we learn he was picked up hours before by a passerby. We get home at 5 a.m. exhausted from a long night out in the woods, when we could have been home asleep. We feel good about ourselves knowing we were involved in a team effort to help a missing individual and their family, but we usually don't feel like a hero when it is over."

The dog team is just one of several teams that make up CCSSAR. When the Sheriff's office learns of a person missing in the Clearwater backcountry, the dog team is usually one of the first teams to be called out. Getting the dogs on scene before there is heavy contamination from other searchers is important. The dog's sense of smell works especially well at night, so while some teams may wait for daylight, the dog team is often deployed in darkness to search for missing persons.

Clearwater County Sheriff's Search and Rescue Dog Team trains each Sunday in various types of weather. Shown from left are: Rob Vance who joined the team in 2015 with his dogs Trace (left) and Zeus, both German Shepherds; April Allen with her Border Collie/Australian Shepherd cross, Kayla, who joined the team in 2008; Mike Deitrick joined the team in March 2017 with his dog, Cici, a 3 ½ year old Rottweiler; Doug Huffman has been with the team since 1998 and this is his third search dog, Border Collie/Australian Shepherd, Leia, who is 2 ½ years old; and Aaron Garcia, who joined the team as an assistant in October 2017 sharing his outdoor skills and knowledge of wilderness survival. (Photo courtesy of CCSSAR Dog Team)

The dogs are trained to work in a number of ways to help find missing people.

The classic tracking dog starts at the last known position of the missing person and attempts to follow the subject's trail. They usually work on leash as they work to follow the subject's scent left behind hours before. Unfortunately, the trail is often too complex or too old for the dog to follow the trail all the way to the missing person. Even if the dog can only follow the person a few hundred yards, it can give the team valuable information about where the person might have gone and how to deploy other resources in the search.

Area-search or air-scent dogs are not hampered by cold or complicated trails. They are not deployed at the last known position. Instead, they are deployed in the area where the subject is thought most likely to be, Air-scent dogs may be deployed a mile or more away from the subject's last known position. Working off leash, they scour the brushy hillsides in search of their subject. An air-scent dog can often detect a missing person hundreds of yards away as they pass downwind of the subject. They then follow the plume of scent upwind to locate the missing person. All CCSSAR area search dogs must show they can reliably find people, indicate to the handler they have made a find, and then take the handler back to the missing person. This requires a lot of training, but has proven to be an effective tool in search and rescue work.

Doug describes one search for a suspect who escaped into the woods from a sheriff's vehicle after an incident in Elk River. He got the call at 3 a.m. and left with his search dog, Nick, at 4:26 a.m. to reach the scene. Meanwhile sheriff's officers were scouring the area trying to find the suspect. When Doug and Nick arrived at the scene of the escape, Doug was briefed and Nick was given the scent of the person from the back of the patrol vehicle and told to "find" Nick, at that point, was primarily trained as an air scent dog and was reluctant to follow the trail which was more than two hours old, but he had alerted to a particular area along the roadway. They then gave him the scent from personal effects of the suspect.

Doug continued, "After putting his nose in the bag, Nick immediately turned around and headed back down the road where we had been. He took us to where he had previously been sniffing the air currents at the edge of the road. With his nose up, sniffing the breeze, Nick worked his way through the brush, moving upwind towards the source of the scent. We were probably less than 75 yards from the county road when we came to our subject hiding in a depression under some heavy brush. I stepped aside and pointed out the subject to deputy Joe Newman, who was right behind me. The time was 5:58 a.m. Officers had walked right past the fugitive in his hiding spot without seeing him. Nick had found the subject just 18 minutes after we arrived."

"The suspect had been drinking alcohol and was wet when he was arrested at Elk River. Wet clothing and alcohol both place a person at greater risk of hypothermia. While hiding from law enforcement officers in the early morning darkness, the suspect lost body heat fast. By the time we found him, he was unconscious from hypothermia and might have died if we hadn't found him when we did. He was carried out of the woods in a stokes basket and transported to Clearwater Valley Hospital by ambulance. It was soon discovered he had given a false name when he was arrested. When his true identity was revealed, it was learned he was wanted on voluntary manslaughter charges in Humboldt County California. That explained why he was willing to risk his life in an escape attempt.

"I later told (then) Clearwater County Sheriff, Alan Hengen that was the proudest day of my life. Since then, I have been on 43 more searches with my search dogs, but have never had another experience like that day back in 2002," Doug concluded, but was quick to add it was a team effort. If the deputies hadn't kept the suspect pinned own, he could have been miles way.

The CCSSAR dog team also trains dogs to find drowning victims. CCSSAR dogs have helped locate several underwater bodies based on the scent given off by gas bubbles and skin oils that float to the surface from the missing person. The dog team has been called out to search for drowning victims in the Clearwater River, Dworshak Lake, the Salmon River and Moose Creek reservoir in Latah County.

"Every handler remembers one search where they felt their dog truly shined," says April Allen.

"I was called to go on a water search above Riggins. A young man and his friends had gone there to have a bachelor party along the Salmon River. They had camped out and the next morning they were going to swim across the river to go to a hot springs. He was not a good swimmer, the current caught him and his friends were unable to save him and he drowned. I was called to see if my dog Kayla could pick up anything.

April Allen and her dog, Kayla, are shown in a drift boat during a search of the Salmon River to locate a man missing and presumed drowned after he attempted to swim across the river to go to a hot spring in September 2014. His body was found three days later when it floated to the surface right where Kayla had alerted. (Photo courtesy of Idaho County Free Press)

"In addition to myself and assistant there were a couple of Idaho County deputies, a Montana dive team, a sonar team, a drone and a drift boat. Kayla showed interest along the bank and indicated. We then went down to the river. We got in the drift boat and worked the currents of the river going down and back up in grids. Each time we passed a certain point Kayla would start whining and snapping at the water and stretching out like she wanted to go into the water. I was certain she had something each time we passed that point. The divers deployed but were unsuccessful in locating the person. The sonar team deployed and at one point thought they saw something in that same area. They talked and believed that there wasn't anything there. I was discouraged.

"So, I asked to review the drone footage and could clearly see from Kayla's behavior that something was there. I heard the father-in-law say he had just come from the Middle East and had worked around dogs and he believed Kayla had something. The family continued to watch the same area for three days. On the third day, an Idaho County Deputy called and notified me the young man came to the surface right where Kayla had indicated. I was truly grateful the family believed in Kayla and that we were able to bring closure to the family. It was a very rewarding and humbling experience," April said.

Rob Vance, his dog, Zeus, and assistant Phil Hargreaves, were called to go on a night search where there were also ATV and foot teams. They were briefed and given the necessary information to begin our search.

"We made a scent article with gloved hands by placing a gauze pad inside of the young man's cowboy boots. We let it sit for a bit, then we bagged it and placed it in a plastic zip lock. We were then transported to the last know position.

"This was Zeus's first time in a UTV (utility-terrain-vehicle) and he thought they needed help driving and wanted to get up front. We walked a short distance and gave Zeus the scent and began our search. We were questioning why Zeus's behavior was different from what I was used to and later found out the subject had been transported farther and that left the scent up off the ground. It was a very interesting search reading the dog and trying to think like he did. More often than not the dog is correct and we humans misread them. After working for about an hour we heard a helicopter (Two Bear Air) and thought oh darn he's going to steal our thunder. And sure, enough three minutes later we heard him say, we got him and there is a dog team about 500 yards away from the subject. They landed and picked the subject up and transported him back to incident command. We then started walking back.

"We were told in debriefing that the subject had done everything right. Once he knew he was lost he stayed in one place and had started to build a shelter. The search was a great learning experience even though the information the reporting party had relayed was incorrect, we were on the right track," Rob concluded.

CCSO Det. Mike Deitrick said, "I have always been a 'dog person' and loved working with dogs.

"My first experience working with the dog team was back in 2002 when I was a Park Ranger at Dworshak Dam. I assisted Doug and his search dog Nick attempting to locate a lost (later determined to be a runaway) youth on the Big Eddy Trail.

"I got CiCi as a puppy in 2014, she is our sixth dog and our fourth Rottweiler. Doug and Leia (Doug's third and current search dog) attended obedience classes along with CiCi and me, and Doug spoke with me regularly about the dog team while we were there.

"After CiCi had completed her obedience, one of the instructors told me that CiCi was ready for more of a challenge. I contacted Ronda Bowser and began training CiCi in tracking and trailing in the spring of 2016, and began training with the team a year later.

"I have always loved the challenges associated with helping people out in emergencies, and saw working with the dog team as another opportunity to reach out in the community. The strong bonds formed with the team members and between the dogs and handlers is just an added benefit," Mike said.

When a dog and handler are deployed, an assistant normally accompanies them. While the handler is focused on the dog, the assistant is the eyes of the team, watching for footprints, a glimpse of orange on a distant ridge or other clues that might help find the subject. The assistant also handles radio communications between the handler and incident command and serves as a navigator for the handler.

Aaron Garcia, one of the assistants to the Dog Team described his experience this way, "At the first SAR (Search and Rescue) meeting I attended in October, the Dog Team Leader, Doug Huffman, said to the group that they needed people to help. I had no legitimate reason not to give it a try, so I went to one of the team's training sessions. I enjoyed being around the team members, learning about how they conducted searches, watching the dogs work and learning new GPS skills."

Since 1998, the dog team has been called 125 times to assist in a search in Clearwater or a neighboring county. Sometimes the team is only placed on standby as a separate CCSSAR team searches for the missing person's vehicle. If the vehicle is found without the person, the dog team is then called to the scene. In all, the dog team has deployed dogs in roughly 60 different searches since 1998.

Some of the searches stand out among the others. In August of 2002, a 12-year-old runaway on the banks of Dworshak Lake was the subject of a search. Initially, the boy didn't want to be found. As one dog and handler were closing in on his location, another dog team was being brought in by boat to be dropped off further upstream in the direction of travel in hopes of intercepting the runaway child. Dinnertime was getting near and the young lad was found at the edge of the lake trying to flag down a boat.

In October of 2011, the team had a near text book search for a missing hunter in Lewis County. The hunter had ridden his ATV to a remote area south of Winchester near the breaks of the Salmon River. He was hunting when a heavy fog came in and he quickly got disoriented and was unable to find his way out. With his cell phone battery failing, he called the Lewis County Sheriff's office for help. Based on the location of the cell phone tower, Lewis County personnel were able to locate the hunter's ATV. The CCSSAR dog team was called to assist. A tracking dog started at the ATV while an area search dog was deployed in the subject's likely direction of travel. The hunter was found in short order by the area search dog and handler.

Not all searches are wilderness searches. The dog team has participated in searches for patients who walked away from State Hospital North, as well as escapees from the prison in Orofino and the North Idaho Correctional Institution at Cottonwood. In May of 2016, the dog team was called out to search for two runaway 10-year-olds who had been camped behind the Orofino Builders Supply. A tracking dog was deployed with the difficult task of following the heavily contaminated trail across concrete, asphalt and various other surfaces. The boys were found safe and sound several miles outside of town before the tracking dog had made it out of the city limits.

Sometimes dogs and their handlers are transported by helicopter to remote areas in the back county. The CCSSAR dog team was transported by helicopter to Otter Butte for a search in Idaho County in 2008 and also to the Kelly Creek drainage in Clearwater County in 2015. Recognizing the need to safely transport the dog team by helicopter, Clearwater County Sherriff Chris Goetz arranged for helicopter safety training for the dog team. In August 2016, five handlers and their dogs from Clearwater County and one from Idaho County participated in the training, which included a short ride in a helicopter.

Doug Huffman runs with his dog Nick through a field on a search. Huffman joined the Dog Team in 1998 after practicing tracking with his neighbors Gene and Pat Archer who were Search and Rescue members. Nick was his first search dog, followed by Kanobi who has retired. Leia is his current search dog. (Photo courtesy of CCSSAR Dog Team)

The dog team has also been actively working with young people to share wilderness survival skills and to encourage safety in the outdoors. Much of this is based on the "Hug a Tree" program, which teaches children to stay in one place if they get lost in the woods. The dog team has been a regular at the sixth-grade forestry tour for many years. They have also given talks to young people with the Boy Scouts, 4-H, and elementary schools. The children love the dogs and it gets their attention so they listen to the safety message better.

Recruiting the right people for the dog team has been a challenge. There have always been plenty of dogs willing and able to put in the training required to be a search dog, but it is difficult to find handlers who are willing to dedicate the time required to train a dog for the task. As such, there is a need for more handlers as well as assistants.

Those who would like to become involved should contact Chief Deputy Rick Miller at 208-476-4521 or email clearwatersar@gmail.com.

Window on the Clearwater
P.O. Box 2444
Orofino, ID 83544
Phone: (208) 476-0733
Fax: (208) 476-4140