Dog Helps Lost Children

Hometown Heroes, People
on July 15, 2001

On a recent Friday, the students at North Elementary in Prince George County, Va., were subtly introduced to a set of survival rules that could mean the difference between a scary episode and a tragedy, should they ever become lost in the woods.

John Suittusing mixed media and the irresistible allure of a handsome, extremely well-behaved German shepherd named Dukevisited the little ones, planting in them information theyll likely remember forever.

If we can teach these young people what to do when they get lost, half our job is done, Suitt says. There are just four rules they must follow: stay in one place, be as loud as you can, color is a must, and stay dry and warm.

Call it sugarcoated survival training. Duke is the sugar, the training is the medicine.

Suitt is a member of K-9 Alert Search and Rescue Dogs Inc., a group of volunteers based in Midlothian, Va., (pop. 3,300) just south of Richmond. If and when the call goes out to find a person lost in the woods anywhere in central Virginia, they respond in a hurry.

Suitt is training Duke to be a search and rescue dog. Certification is based on state regulations, and qualified K-9 members make sure dogs are fully trained to pass such tests as night search and properly working a 160-acre grid.

Duke also is polishing the basic tracking skills: identifying the scent to follow, staying focused on the hunt when a small animal enters his path and causes a possible distraction, and finally, signaling his owner when he thinks hes made a find.

But Suitt says training kids is just as important as training Duke, and hes already fully equipped to do so.

If the North Elementary responsewhich came in the form of thank you love letters the kids sent to Dukeis any measure, Suitt is getting his message through on a very effective level.

His approach to working with children is simple and direct. Following a video presentation, Suitt distributes a brochure on the steps a lost child can take to make the search process as simple and quickly successful as possible. He developed and produced the brochure, based on tips from searchers at K-9. It includes advice for the child: never go out alone, tell people where youre going, check the weather (and remember, when it rains, lightning loves trees), and stay on existing paths.

And if those tips dont work out, he wants them to be prepared.

Build a nest and stay there. If you stay in one place, youre working with the search team, Suitt explains to his pint-sized audience. We search on what we call a grid, and once a portion has been searched, we mark it off, and we dont go back to it, so if you wander from an area we havent searched into one we already have, it presents a big problem.

The brochure also lists for parents the equipment each child needs, in a sort of minisurvival kit/fanny pack. Suitt says its a wise parent, especially those living near woods, who keeps his child in the habit of always wearing the pack outside.

The fanny pack contains seven items, three of which are granola bars. Add to those a bottle of drinking water, a 20-gallon plastic garbage bag to wear and keep warm and dry (Just be sure to leave your head sticking out, so you can breath, he says), a plastic whistle, and a brightly colored bit of cloth that can be seen from a distance.

Suitt is hot on the trail of contributors to donate these survival materials in his area. Already,, an Internet service provider based in nearby Hopewell, Va., has contributed enough plastic whistles for every kid in Prince George County. And Johns employer, Dominion Virginia Power, is letting him use a company copier to print 5,000 of the brochures. An anonymous donor bought thousands of plastic trash bags, and now Suitt just needs someone to buy a few thousand nylon fanny packs.

While he continues training Duke, Suitt is setting up visits with every elementary school in the greater Tri-Cities Area, which includes two other counties and three cities near Prince George Countya locality of 32,000 between Richmond and the North Carolina state line.

And from what the kids at North Elementary say, Suitt apparently has found the perfect four-legged teaching tool.