It was a cold, rainy fall day a few years ago. A 17-year-old autistic girl had gone missing from her home in Cottage Hills. Her family was worried. Police needed help. They called Ron Edwards.
Edwards, a retired video production worker from Fairview Heights, is the president of a local canine-based search and rescue team, SAR K9 CO-OP Inc. Edwards established the all-volunteer team of specially trained dogs and handlers in 2012 to assist in situations just as this.
Since its founding, SAR K9 members have aided in about 16 searches. Not all have had happy endings. But this one did. The girl was found. She was cold. She was scared. But she was alive.
“She was wet, huddled along side a 20-foot ravine,” Edwards said.
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“A tool in their tool box”
Edwards founded his group after having participated with a similar organization in St. Louis.
“It only took me one practice of me hiding for a dog. I thought it would take two years for it to find me. He found me in about 38 seconds, flat,” he said.
Since then, Edwards himself has participated with his dog in about 30 searches, half in Missouri and half in Illinois, as well as more than 1,500 mock rescues.
SAR K9 mainly focuses on southern Illinois and the St. Louis metro area, but has gone as far as Pontiac, Ill., to aid in search efforts.
They do so free of charge. However, the team does not self deploy. It only participates when invited by law enforcement.
“They are in charge of the search. We are just a tool in their tool box,” said Edwards, who visited Triad Middle School last Thursday with several other members of his group to talk to Stephanie Maedge’s sixth-grade class.
When looking for missing persons, outcomes — like the one in Cottage Hills — are usually better if police call early, Edwards said. Hot trails are easier for the dogs to pick up. They are also easier to find if a lot of people haven’t trampled over the area. But police have to make that call.
“If the police don’t call, we don’t go,” Edwards said.
A lot of training required
Dogs and handlers train year round, an average of twice a week — usually once at night and once in the daytime. They train in all types of weather.
But it’s more than just training the dogs. All handlers must also achieve a high level of certification.
“There are a lot of hours that go into just training the person, before you can even train a dog,” Edwards said.
Preparing handlers and canines to take the national certification test requires patience, dedication and hard work. It can take 12 to 18 months.
“It’s a long process,” said Sherry Easley of Iuka, Ill., the handler for Ms., a 4-year-old German Sheppard.
It can be done, though.
Edwards said he had “always liked to be around dogs,” but before he became involved in search and rescue, he never considered himself much of a trainer.
“In the past, if I could get a dog to sit, it was a huge deal,” he said.
Now, Edwards and his dog, Rock, are considered to be one of the top search and rescue teams in the country.
Can my dog make the grade?
The group’s goal is to nationally certify all canines at the highest level possible in their respective discipline. The different disciplines are: area search, tracking/trailing, and cadaver/HRD.
Tracy Kuttin-Ferguson of Holiday Shores is the handler for Watson, a 10-month-old Chocolate Lab and SAR K9’s newest four-legged member. While Watson was being house trained, she was also learning to trail.
“She has been tracking since she was seven weeks old,” Kuttin-Ferguson said.
Younger dogs are easier to train, but they don’t have to be pups to learn search and rescue.
Also, personality, more than pedigree, is what’s important when it comes to training. It’s important that they, “like to play,” Edwards said.
“What we look for in a dog is high drive — wants to play ball, wants to play fetch, wants to play tug of war, or has a high food drive,” he said.
They also have to behave around other dogs and other people; no biting is allowed.
“They have to be very passive,” Easley said.
Other Search Units
SAR K9 is first and foremost a dog-based search and rescue team. It has nine dogs. However, it has about 32 volunteers spread out among its various units.
A ground unit assists dog handlers during their searches.
SAR K9 formed an air unit in the summer of 2014. It now has five pilots, two helicopters, and several fixed wing airplanes to assist members on the ground.
The group also has a bike unit. Capable of covering areas far faster than those on foot, the bike team is meant to sweep urban neighborhoods quickly when someone goes missing there, although the unit could also be used in other environments, such as woodland trails.
A cold case unit was also recently formed.
SAR K9 needs people with many different skills, both operational and administrative. Most people new to the group have a love for the outdoors, a desire to work with highly trained dogs, and a desire to help others.
It’s a volunteer group, but should you want to train a canine for search and rescue, SAR K9 will help.
Bernadine Zinda of Walshville, a small community in Montgomery County, near Litchfield, has been with SAR K9 for about a year. She and her dog, Abby, a 4-year-old Labradoodle, have been trained as a tracking and trailing team.
“Abby was just my house pet, and I trained her, and she just took off with it,” Zinda said.
If you don’t have a canine suitable for search and rescue, the group can help in the selection process, and there is no membership fee or charge for helping handlers receive certifications.
If you are intested in joining, contact SAR K9 president Ron Edwards at (618) 531-6785 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
What to do if you are lost
If you are lost, there is one great rule to follow: Stay put.
“The more you move, the harder it is to find you, because you might be moving further away,” said Ron Edwards, president of the local search and rescue group SAR K9 CO-OP.
Also, make yourself visible. You can do this by getting to a clearing that can be spotted from the air and putting out signs.
“Take some branches. Make and X. Make the biggest X you can make,” Edwards said.
Do not “hug a tree.” Edwards said this not only makes it harder to spot you from the air, but it also throws off the search dogs.
“There’s this thing called ‘the chimney effect,’” he said.
This is where the tree actually works like a wick, pulling your scent upward to a point where winds can spread it over large areas. It can cause the dog to alert as far as 2,000 feet away from your actual position, Edwards said.
Note: SAR K9 CO-OP has put out a coloring book entitled “Stay Put and Survive” to teach children what to do if they are lost. A PDF file of the coloring book can be found linked to this story on the News Leader website, www.highlandnl.com.