After 30 minutes of combing the woods of Lehtinen Park in Concord earlier this month, Doreen Michalak of Peterborough knelt in the leaves to celebrate with her partner.
“Are you a good girl? Yeah! Such a good girl,” she said in showering praise.
Djenga didn’t say anything in response. All she wanted was for Michalak to grab and pull back on the blue-and-green tug toy clutched in her teeth.
“This is the reason my dog works,” she said. “Before we discuss how the problem went … it’s all about her.”
Michalak and her 2-year-old search dog, a Malinois, had just found Nikki Gammans, who had pretended to be lost during a training session with New England K-9 Search and Rescue, a volunteer organization that has worked with law enforcement in New Hampshire and Vermont to locate missing subjects for more than 35 years.
Michalak has been with the team for 2½ years and has been on more than four searches with Djenga, who was certified last autumn after more than a year of training.
They are one of about 10 pairs in the group who respond to 30-40 calls each year and train at least once a week.
They offer their services for free, but are by no means amateur. Training and certification for both handlers and dogs is rigorous and often takes years.
“I consider us unpaid professionals,” said Donna Larson of New Ipswich, a founding member of the group.
“It’s quality over quantity. It’s not a sport. It’s really serious work,” she said, adding that law enforcement “really depend on us to be top-notch.”
On calls, New England K-9 Search and Rescue can supply five to 10 wilderness-certified airscent dog teams, which include a dog, handler and field assistant, and which can cover 80-160 acres in a three- to four-hour shift. They work to find subjects, alive or deceased, in wilderness situations, water, debris or buried in snow. They are available 24/7, 365 days a year.
Airscent dogs work to pinpoint the source of smells that don’t “belong,” whether it be the missing person themselves or an article like a shoe or campsite. They work differently from other search dogs who might be trained to track a human scent trail that has been previously identified.
During the practice search, Djenga often bounded ahead of Michalak, darting one way, then another, before looking back to make sure Michalak was still there.
“She will run back and forth to check out everything that I present to her,” Michalak said.
As the dogs put their superior noses to work, handlers keep track of the search grid and any changes in the air, making sure the team is crisscrossing downwind from the area in question.
At Lehtinen Park, the air in the area of Gammans was stagnant, and when Djenga picked it up she wasn’t sure where to go.
“There’s no air moving. But I knew, as the handler, that her body language is telling me somewhere in this area there is something,” Michalak said. “So at that point we have to say, ‘Okay, we trust the dog,’ and we start throwing big loops so they can come into scent, and the dog can work out where that scent is actually coming from.”
When Djenga finally sniffed out Gammans, she went to give Michalak the signal. At full speed she ran and jumped up onto her owner before running back to the search area where Gammans was curled up on the ground next to a large log.
“That’s why it’s such a team thing. Because the dog will say, ‘There’s scent,’ but they might not be able to narrow it down, so as a handler you’ve got to get them in position to help them solve the problem,” Gammans said after she was found.
Outside of training, those problems are tackled in all seriousness and results can be unhappy ones. It’s not a job for everyone, but sometimes the harsh realities of life make each happy ending that much sweeter.
“Shepherd 13 this is Shepherd 8,” Michalak called into her radio.
“Go ahead Shepherd 8.”
“We have a green tag; we are heading back to car,” she replied, signaling to the group that Gammans had been found “alive.”
(Elizabeth Frantz can be reached at 369-3333, email@example.com or on Twitter