HIKING WITH BRAD VILES

Dedicated dogs, handlers crucial to backwoods searches

Posted April 08, 2011, at 5:23 p.m.

Imagine this scenario happening to you: You’re an experienced hiker with a group of friends on a long, difficult day trip to the top of a 4,000-foot western Maine mountain. It’s early spring and after your last break, partway up, your buddies went on ahead. You told them you’d catch up in a few minutes, after you took a few more photos of the views. They took with them the only map in the group.

Soon after resuming your hike, you miss an intersection and take an unmarked side trail that turns into a dead end in the woods. You turn back to find the original trail, but become lost. Your friends don’t realize that you’re missing until they get back to the parking area. Night is approaching, so one of them calls the game wardens to start searching for you.

When you’re located it may not be by a two-legged searcher. In fact, it probably will be a search dog that locates you through its keen sense of smell combined with its handler’s training skill.

If you’re lucky, the searchers will find you alive and uninjured. They’ll walk you out under your own power in the middle of the night. If the dog hadn’t found you, the outcome could have been quite different, even fatal.

Such situations are how dogs such as Freya, 10, and Fran, 6, a mother-and-daughter team, have earned the admiration of their handler, Jennifer Fisk. Both Fisk and the dogs have undergone extensive training and are members of Maine Search and Rescue Dogs, or MESARD. The dogs are certified in wilderness air scent through the association, an all-volunteer group that performs wilderness searches of all types, not just for hikers.

I paid a visit last week to Acadia Woods Kennels, the business Fisk owns on the outskirts of Bar Harbor, to find out more about how the dogs are trained and what is likely to happen if they are sent out to find me.

“It all starts with a report of a lost person to the Maine Warden Service. They inform York County Emergency Management Agency, which in turn alerts us by pager,” she said. “In the text page we get the information regarding the warden on the scene, the location, the type of search and information about the victim. Two of the handlers from Down East will meet me at McDonald’s in Ellsworth, we load up the equipment and off we go.”

But, before that, Fisk and her dogs, of which she has three, all German shepherds, undergo training that can vary from 11 months to a few years, depending on the motivation of the trainer. She said that both Freya and Fran are capable of being trained to be scent-specific searchers, although they are not qualified now.

“We’ve had an exercise where there’ll be two people on the trail, one ahead of the other. The one in front will drop a hat with his scent on it. The handler arrives, picks up the hat and tells the dog to find that person.

“In the meantime, the person in the rear will have gone off the trail ahead of the hat to hide. The dogs will find the person in the rear and not come back to the handler, because they told them to find the person with the hat. They’ll continue on until they find that person. Then, they come back to the handler to report and lead the handler to the victim,” she said.

Even though it’s time-consuming to train the dogs, the concept is really fundamental. “It’s so simple,” Fisk said. “They get rewarded for being successful. If you’re going to play fetch the stick and tugging and pulling play, then you’re going to find whoever’s in the woods, the way you’ve been trained. They’ve learned that if they lead me to the victim, then they get to play.”

There are hazards to the dogs and handlers in conducting searches, she said. “Ninety percent of our searches are started at night. By the time we get to the scene, it’s usually dark. Darkness doesn’t present a problem for the dogs. In fact, the scent generally settles closer to the ground after dark. Often we don’t have an item with the person’s scent on it. The dogs just pick up on the human scent that’s out there and find that person,” she said. “The biggest dangers to the dogs are porcupines and their quills.”

Although for the dogs the rewards are primal, i.e. play in exchange for performance of their duties, the rewards for Fisk are more personal. “For me, I like solving the mystery of locating the lost person. I also like the camaraderie of the people I work with, the wardens and the other rescuers,” she said.

While I talked to Fisk, Freya and Fran lay at her feet in her office. I could sense the pride she had in her dogs’ abilities. She pointed out that the dogs she has are only part of the search organization in Maine. “There is one mounted unit,” she said, “as well as many other search dogs and handlers all over the state that belong to MESARD. Every one of us is dedicated to this.”

So far in my hiking life, I’ve been lucky. I’ve yet to need to “call out the dogs.”  If that situation arises someday, I hope that the rescuers are as capable as Freya, Fran and Jennifer Fisk. Her third search dog, a female named Bea, still is in training. Any one of them could be sent out to find you or me. I might just start packing frozen chicken legs as a reward for when that happens.

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