When someone goes missing in Pennington County, people aren’t the only ones who go looking for them. Rescue dogs also help out, sometimes cutting down a search that could have taken hours to only a few minutes.
Pennington County Search and Rescue trained the county’s dogs for three days this week with the help of a master trainer from New Mexico, culminating in a seminar Thursday at the Central States Fairgrounds. Two dogs from an Alden, Iowa, search and rescue team practiced their skills tracking and detecting human remains.
Certifying dogs for those skills is an extensive process that can take upward of two years. Dogs must also be recertified after several years, according to Rick Lehmann, assistant team leader for Pennington County Search and Rescue.
Pennington County has three certified tracking dogs and several dogs in training. The county occasionally hosts events to train and retrain county dogs as well as dogs from nearby areas.
The first exercise on Thursday challenged Bailey, a 15-month-old tracking dog from Iowa who had just been certified Wednesday, to find a woman in hiding after sniffing a few articles of clothing. Despite windy conditions, Bailey found the woman in less than a minute.
That’s a task that could take a human search team several hours, even in a small area, according to Pennington County Search and Rescue team member Tiana Shuster. “They can follow scents and search and smell things that humans can’t,” she said.
Dogs are rewarded with treats, scratches and toys after successfully completing an exercise.
Robert Noziska, an agent and master trainer from the North American Police Work Dog Association, traveled to Rapid City from New Mexico to help train the dogs. According to Noziska, there isn’t a particular breed of dog that is better at tracking.
“It’s all in the training,” Noziska said.
Dogs can also help find people who don’t want to be found, such as fugitives, Noziska said.
Pennington County deploys its dogs about six times a year, Lehmann said. He estimates that the dogs have an accuracy of about 90 percent. “It’s not an absolute science,” Lehmann said.
Shuster said the dogs are important for places like the Black Hills area because the terrain is so wide and variable. Although Pennington County doesn’t have dogs trained in area searches or detecting human remains, nearby K-9 units can respond if there’s a need.
“We don’t do it to be noticed,” Iowa handler Tammy Hansen said. “We do it because we want to help.”