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Mountain Home Magazine

The Nose Knows

Feb 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Gayle Morrow

It’s a mid-winter evening at the Tioga County Fairgrounds, clear and cold, with a hazy ring just forming around a three-quarter waxing moon. It’s quiet. There is no wind. The warmth and bustle of Fair Week is months past. The barns, arenas, and midway are empty, the exhibitors, livestock, and fairgoers long gone. But think of the smells that must linger here—scents from food, animals, humans, fuel, machinery, plus the fresh odors of the six people and six dogs who are all here tonight. For an animal with a nose as sensitive as a dog’s, the olfactory stimulation could be something to bark about.

But odors are why we’re here. Smells are why I’m hiding in the dark in an empty ticket booth at the outer edge of a vacant arena, an unopened jar of baby food in one hand. It’s chicken paté, I think, but it doesn’t matter because, thankfully, I’m not the one who’s going to eat it. It’s Shylo’s reward when she finds me. I’m the “search subject.” I wonder how long it will take. We haven’t met, so, to her, I’m just one smell amidst all those other smells. All she has to go on is a sniff of the flannel shirt I was wearing and her handler’s command: “Find her.”

It doesn’t take her more than a few minutes. When I see her inquisitive snout come around the corner of the booth, and hear the chorus of “good dog, good girl, Shylo,” from the attending humans, I pop open the jar of her favorite treat and she cleans it out with a few swipes of her tongue.

Her handler/owner, Shay Kerns-Barr, says that Shylo is, well, a little shy with people she doesn’t know (thus the name), and that they’re working on helping her get over that. As part of her training, could I be the one to lead her back from her successful search and rescue mission?

I’m delighted to do that.

Love for Community, Love for Dogs

Lisa B. Rice is the 911 coordinator for Tioga County. She’s been part of the county’s emergency services system since 1990, including stints as an EMT and as a dispatcher.

“I’ve always had a love for serving the community this way,” she says, adding, “I love working with my dogs.” Given the focus on outdoor recreation here, she agrees there have been times over those years when it would have been helpful to have a local contingency of trained search and rescue (SAR) canines. The disappearance of Michael Malinowski twenty-five years ago on the Colton Point side of the Pine Creek Gorge is a case in point. There was no local SAR canine team to be quickly deployed. Whether that would have made a difference is now just conjecture. Michael Malinowski was never found. That has always bothered Lisa. Families need closure, she believes.

In 2018, reflecting on that need, she decided it was time to combine her two loves. She and a small group of like-minded folks started Laurel Mountain K9 Search and Rescue, formed a non-profit, and began training Lisa’s young golden retriever, Patriot, as the team’s first working search and rescue dog. Freedom, a.k.a. Little Dude, or just Dude, followed—he’s Patriot’s full brother, but a year younger. Patriot is certified in trailing and in human remains detection (HRD). Dude was initially certified in narcotics, and is now certified in area search/air scenting.

They’re known in certain circles as the Rice Boys.

Lisa confesses that she has a third dog, also a golden retriever, who is something of a couch potato. He’s “not very motivated,” she laughs. Motivation is a critical personality trait for a search and rescue dog.

Lisa is the only original member of Laurel Mountain K9 Search and Rescue—the others have gone on to other things, she says. These days she and the Rice Boys team up with six other members and an assortment of canine companions. Kim Piasecki works with Andi, an Australian shepherd certified in air scent, and with Tatum, a bloodhound puppy in training for trailing. In addition to Shylo, who is a Lab/Belgian Malinois cross in training for trailing, Shay Kerns-Barr works with Luna, a young and extremely wiggly little mixed breed—sometimes dubbed “Luna the Lunatic”—who is also in training for trailing. Todd Bourdette works with a border collie named Rayne. Steve Ensminger and his Lab/St. Bernard cross, Chief, are the most recent additions. Denise Drabick serves as the team’s training coordinator, and works, as does Steve Allen, another fairly new member, as a “ground pounder” or search technician. Neither of them has dogs on the team, but are there for the weekly trainings and, when the calls come in, for the searches.

“This weekly training is so valuable to the K9s and the team as a whole,” says Steve. “As a relatively new team member, I learned that the team was a close-knit group that quickly accepted me. Their friendship and guidance will help me to become a fully certified member of the team, hopefully by the end of 2022.”

What Motivates Your Dog?

Some dogs love to work (not mine, BTW), so, if you want them to work for you and with you, you need to discover what kind of reward will encourage them to do what you ask. Typically that’s food, or a toy, or an activity.

After Little Dude found his search subject during the nighttime training at the fairgrounds, Lisa gave him his favorite toy—a ball at the end of a rope. He had a blast with it. Other dogs, like Shylo and Luna, are food-driven.

“They have to enjoy it,” Lisa says. “You need a dog with a strong prey or work drive.”

Dr. Frank Rosell, author of Secrets of the Snout: The Dog’s Incredible Nose, writes “scent tasks” make dogs happy. How much happier, and how much more willing to do what we ask, if we augment that with an additional something we know the dog really, really enjoys?

On the flip side, if a search and rescue operation does not result in a find, or not the find the dog has been asked for, some dogs can get down in the dumps. That happened after 9-11, Lisa explains. There was a period of time searchers at the World Trade Center were using “live find” dogs as opposed to those trained on human remains detection, hoping they’d come up with survivors. When that didn’t happen, some dogs actually became depressed.

Lisa says it’s important for the dogs to learn about searching such “negative areas” and to reward them in some fashion for their work, even if there was nothing to find.

“You have to be thoughtful of your dog,” Lisa states. She recalls one of Patriot’s searches that turned up nothing. When they got home, she gave him something to find in their yard.

Smelling and Breathing (Spoiler Alert—They’re Not the Same Thing)

A dog’s nose is 100,000 to one million times more sensitive than ours. That range is even greater if the nose belongs to a bloodhound. Dogs can detect odors in parts per trillion. To understand how amazing that is, think of a teaspoon of something odorous mixed in the amount of water it would take to fill two Olympic-sized swimming pools. That’s parts per trillion.

Canine nostrils are uniquely suited to smelling and breathing at the same time. Thanks to the structure of their noses, they can sniff almost continuously, breathing all the while but not exhaling away the scent itself. Dog schnozzes have a sort of flap inside that determines the direction of the airstream in and out, which then works to send information about the incoming scent to the appropriate side of the brain.

According to Dr. Rosell, “how odorants [smells] are deposited...plays a role in compound recognition.” After smells get in the nose, “they are transformed into an electrical signal that travels via the olfactory nerve to the olfactory center of the brain where the information is interpreted.”

The breed with the best sense of smell, according to, is the bloodhound. A bloodhound’s long ears and wrinkly facial skin are also helpful in getting smells to her nose while she’s on a trail. Others on the best smellers list include the beagle, German shepherd, dachshund, harrier, basset, redbone, bluetick, English foxhound, Labrador retriever, black and tan, treeing walker, golden retriever, Scottish terrier, and Malinois.

You may not know this (I didn’t), but cats’ noses are even more sensitive than dogs’. As much as I love cats, I can’t imagine any of the ones I know being convinced to help me find anything.

It’s a matter of motivation.

The Power of the Pooch

The dogs and humans of Laurel Mountain K9 Search and Rescue are trained to find lost and missing people and things via three main methods: trailing, air scent, and human remains detection.

Training for air scent and trailing is similar, Lisa says. Dogs trained for air scent detect smells in the air; they often work off-lead and range over wide areas. They are typically “non-scent-discriminating,” as they may not be searching for a specific person.

A trailing dog does just that—locates a specific person by following a scent trail. They follow a more direct path than their air-scenting co-workers, and are usually kept on a long lead. HRD dogs learn to ignore living smells and focus on human remains odors—even really old odors in really small samples. To put it delicately, Lisa has access to the components she needs to train for HRD, including bits of cotton, stored in glass vials, which have been saturated with those odors. With the top off the vial, and the vial tucked into a corner or on top of something, Patriot can find it.

“You have to be sure you’re training on all sizes of source,” Lisa notes. She adds that Patriot will “work through a graveyard of deer bones because he knows that’s not the target.”

HRD-trained dogs can help with missing person cold cases, disaster scenes, or crime scenes.

Dogs must be certified with an accredited nationally recognized organization before they can be official SAR dogs, or considered to be “field operational.” The National Association for Search and Rescue and the American Working Dog Association are two that Laurel Mountain K9 Search and Rescue work with. Certification typically takes a year; most are then good for two years before renewal is required.

It’s a rigorous training. The canine certification from AWDA alone is twenty-six pages of stuff your dog needs to know or be able to do.

Handlers also must certify with various search and rescue accredited organizations via written and field-testing. They must know about “scent theory”—how smells move according to how the air moves, how to set up a search area, and how to do canine first aid and canine CPR, Lisa says.

While some old dogs can learn new tricks, for SAR training it’s best to start with a puppy, Lisa continues. It helps to be cognizant of what a dog has been through, what her life experiences have been. That knowledge might help you figure out her motivations or the reasons she responds the way she does to certain situations.

Once you’ve got the motivation/reward figured out, the trick is “to get him really pumped for the treat,” Lisa says. The training starts small—maybe you let your dog see you hide, tell him to “find me,” and then give the reward.

“It’s a progression of constant chains of behavior,” Lisa explains. For the next step, you might hide but not let your dog see where you went. The idea is to focus on one scent, yours, in this case, and get your dog to follow it to its conclusion. Then make it harder by using another person as the search subject, or make a scent trail with an object.

Training must include locating the scent source in a variety of places, Lisa continues—above ground, buried, elevated, in a vehicle, in a building, in a container, and always including the “negative area.”

Training also includes figuring out what a particular dog’s “indicator” is. How does he let you know he’s found what you’ve asked him to? Some dogs return to their handler and bark or give a “body bang.” Others will sit where they’ve found the scent source.

During the night training at the fairgrounds, some of the dogs wore electronic trackers. With that device and a GPS, handlers can overlay the subject’s track and the dog’s path to see how the two coincide. That might help your dog stay on task, but it might also be revelatory to you.

“An odor may not be exactly where a person walked,” Lisa notes. That’s one reason for the tattoo on her inner arm, the one that says, “tuum canum confide.” It means “trust your dog,” and it’s a critical component of the dog/human search and rescue team. The ability to “read” your dog, his body language, his nuances, enhances the bond that develops between the two of you, and enables you to trust his nose, and him, even if he’s going in what you believe to be the wrong direction.

Remember, he’s got about a zillion more olfactory sensors than you do.

So Far...

The Laurel Mountain K9 Search and Rescue team had fifteen active searches in 2021 and six availability notices. Patriot was out on six human remains detection calls and was involved in a criminal case downstate.

“My team doesn’t typically deploy on criminal investigations, or when the person we’re looking for could be dangerous,” Lisa says. “We’re search and rescue, not law enforcement.” She notes that while the team, of course, wants to be in on the find, it’s the find that’s the thing, not who does it. What’s important is “knowing that we can give a family answers, maybe not the answers they want, but answers.”

All in all, it’s a great deal of work, time, and, yes, money. Training and equipment are expensive.

“We do a lot of fundraisers and grant work, but the vast majority comes out of pocket,” says Denise Drabick. “You either love it, and are willing to put the money into it, or not.”

For information about becoming a team member or a volunteer—you don’t have to have a dog—contact Lisa at [email protected] or visit If you do go to the website, be sure to check out the memorial to team member Chris Williammee, who died December 12, 2021.

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