K-9 Search and Rescue

Health, Home & Family, Hometown Heroes, People
on February 11, 2001

Ruby started life without a name, just a ball of black fur curled up in a dark garage. She was a Labrador puppy no one wanteduntil Ethel Johnston came to visit.

Johnston had been looking for a four-legged partner to team up with for search and rescue. I wanted to give back to the community, says Johnston of Odessa, Del., (pop. 287). I belong to the fire department. I enjoy helping out with functions, but Im not the firefighting type. I wanted to do more.

I love animals, so I really wanted to get involved with canine search and rescue. I was looking for a dog that needed a chance when I found Ruby, she says. She was just a skinny, four-month old puppy on the end of a rusty chain. I really didnt think shed make it as a rescue dog.

Today, Ruby and Johnston are a team, and both are members of East Coast K-9 Search and Rescue based in Milford, Del., (pop. 6,040). The nonprofit group has been helping law enforcement agencies find missing folks for six years. The dogs are primarily Labrador retrievers and German shepherds, while the 16 human members come from all walks of life, from a furniture maker and a chemist to housewives, a banker, and a catererJohnston is an office administrator. All are volunteers who trek through rain and snow, daytime, nighttime, scorching heat, and subzero temperatures.

Well go as far as we can go, as far as our regular jobs will allow, as one member put it. If we can get time off, well be there.

The volunteers arent driven by tangible rewardthe services they provide are free, the people they search for are strangers.

When someone is lost, like a hunter, hiker, or child, law enforcement agencies or emergency services call us to assist. Its not an easy job, says Karen Moylan, founder and training officer for East Coast K-9 Search and Rescue and the person who trained Johnston. But when I see the families of a missing person waiting and wringing their hands, I know that by finding their loved one, we can give them closure.

Not all finds have happy endings, but some do. K-9 teams tracked an elderly woman who had wandered away from home into a wooded area. Although she had lost her shoes and had lain down expecting to die, she was found and returned to her family. Another discovery involved a Boy Scout separated from his troop. He also was found alive and well, though he had been lost for hours.

The group survives nearly entirely on private donations and the generosity of The United Way. Through chicken barbecue fund-raisers and donations, they have managed to raise enough money to purchase a utility trailer, base unit, pop-up shelter, small boat, handheld radios and all the equipment necessary for searches that can last for days.

Weve put a lot of our own money into this, says Paul Moylan of Lewes, Del., and vice-president of East Coast K-9. Its worth it though. Its very rewarding, he says.

Each member, two and four-legged, undergoes vigorous training and participates in training missions several times a month.

Recently, Delaware State Police Detective John Evans set up a mock search scene for the group to hone their skills, leaving a trail through a leafy, wooded area with a concealed jar of soil containing human scent at the end of it.

Two at a time, one canine and one human entered the woods. Weeds and wild vines made for difficult walking. Michele Cabelle of New Castle affectionately scratched her partner Buster behind the ears and told him to go to work.

The 4-year-old retriever rushed ahead, his nose twitching. In less than five minutes, Buster let out a bark of victory. He had found the dirt partially buried below a fallen tree. Buster received his reward, a toss of a rubber ball.

Its not surprising that the dogs are so good at what they do. Humans have 5,000 scent cells, and dogs have 300 million. Id say they were made for the job! says Karen Moylan. We wish they would call us in first. It would save manpower and time. For every 30 hours of ground pounding humans do searching on foot, a dogs average find time is in four hours.

As for Johnston, what she and Ruby do has its own rewards. I dont need a pat on the back, she says. None of us do. Just being able to help someone in time of need is enough for me.