By the end of the weekend, 14 dogs with five different kinds of specialties will have searched for the girl who ran away from a residential youth home in rural Pennington County last Sunday.
Working with dogs is “truly a team effort,” said Tammy Stadel, a dog handler and the team leader of Pennington County Search and Rescue.
Seven dogs specializing in tracking, trailing, air scent, and/or urban and wilderness search looked for 9-year-old Serenity Dennard last Sunday, Monday Tuesday and Friday, Stadel said. The weather was too cold and dangerous on Wednesday and Thursday, and Dennard was already presumed dead by Tuesday night if she spent her time in the woods.
This weekend, seven new dogs from four states that specialize in finding both live and dead scents will search for Dennard, said Willie Whelchel, chief deputy at the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office. Two each are coming from South Dakota, Wyoming and Iowa, and one is coming from Colorado.
The canines, along with their handlers and a group of four or five search and rescue personnel, will leave at 7:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday from the Black Hills Children’s Home near Rockerville, Whelchel said. A helicopter and 35-40 search and rescue volunteers will also be on hand.
The first seven dogs came from PCSR, Custer County Search and Rescue, the Rapid City Fire Department, and an independent dog handler, Stadel said. Four different kinds of search and rescue dogs were represented within that group: tracking, trailing, air scent, and urban and wilderness search dogs.
Tracking, trailing and air scent dogs are given an article of clothing or item with the scent of the missing person, Stadel said. Tracking dogs “follow footstep to footstep” of where a missing person went, and the dogs follow the person’s scent in ground disturbances such as footsteps, overturned leaves and fallen trees.
Trailing dogs follow the scent that sits on top of the ground, Stadel said. She said they work best on existing trails. Air scent dogs follow the person’s scent in the air by starting downwind and walking into the wind.
Urban and wilderness search and rescue dogs don’t work off a specific scent. Instead, they are looking for the scent of any living person, Stadel said.
“They’re looking for any live scent that is in an area,” she said.
Urban search and rescue dogs (USARs) are often used to search for survivors after building collapses, such as during the September 11 attack.
Belgian malinois, German shepherd, collie, golden retriever, labrador and other dogs with longer snouts make good search and rescue dogs since they have more scent receptors, Stadel said.
She said said rain can wash scent away while snow can blanket the smell. “Bitter cold” weather creates smaller scent molecules, which means the smell doesn’t travel as far or smell as strong.
The dogs, sometimes wearing boots and vests, go out with four or five handlers and can last different amounts of time, depending on their size or how fast they work. Tango the Australian shepherd “can go for hours,” Stadel said of one of PCSR’s rescue dogs.
“We can kind of judge and see how they’re doing” and when they need a break, she said.
Search and rescue dogs begin training when they are around six months old, but must practice their skills at least once a week for the rest of their working lives, Stadel said.
“It is a very time-consuming task,” she said.
When puppies begin training, they are given the scent of a person who is hiding close by. Once they find the person, they are given a reward.
“It’s like hide and seek for the dogs,” Stadel said.
The people are then hidden further and further away, and on more difficult trails.
The new dogs are cadaver, or human remains detection (HRD), dogs, and are trained to search for the scent of a dead person. To train, the dogs practice with “true cadaver material,” such as a piece of bone, burnt flesh or a leg soaked in blood, that are buried under ground, Stadel said. The remains come from people who volunteered to have their bodies donated and are procured through a medical director.
Whelchel said avalanche dogs weren’t available this weekend, but they may come later if necessary. The avalanche dogs work similar to air scent or urban/wilderness search dogs except “they’re looking for any human scent that’s underneath the snow,” Stadel said.
To train avalanche dogs, trainers bury someone underneath the snow but make sure to create an air pocket for them so they can breath, she said. Rescuers use poles to help feel for avalanche survivors and the holes created by the poles also help aerate the snow so the dogs can smell better.