Averaging 40 searches per year in Vermont and New Hampshire, the New England K-9 Search and Rescue team is comprised of special partnerships between man and dog.
“The air scent dog is a unique resource. They’re actually using scent and hunting skills to search the air for a missing person or articles. The handler is working with the dog using their skills of subject profile, reading the terrain and weather and how the scent will behave,” said veteran search and rescue dog handler Donna Larson. She says to think of the character pig pen from the comic Peanuts, we’re all walking around surrounded by a cloud of scent.
“And [the dogs] do know the difference between someone just casually walking and the missing person, because usually the missing person is frightened or anxious. In some way, they’re giving off that odor that they don’t belong out there,” continued Larson.
Fellow handler Jocelyn Stohl says teams can be tasked with searching between 40 and 160 acres.
“We’ve identified a dog that can work independently and that wants to play the game. And the game results in what we call the paycheck,” said Stohl.
Handlers refine their dog’s natural desire to work and hunt by starting training from a young age. Regular exercise and demos for both pup and handler keep the team at the top of their game, ready to respond even on the coldest and snowiest of days.
“It doesn’t really hinder the dogs or the handlers. We’re all very prepared to be out in any kind of weather, even in the middle of winter. We all have micro spikes and the winter clothing,” said Larson.
Wednesday November 16th, 2016, Brattleboro hunter Jack Chapman was, as he puts it, taking his rifle for a walk in the Northeast Kingdom.
“My buddy has a camp in Holland we got up in the morning and I said I’m going to the south and he said well, that’s good, I’m going north; maybe we’ll meet each other on the other hill,” said Chapman.
Chapman ended up lost in the unfamiliar terrain and one of the biggest searches in the history of the state of Vermont unfolded. One thing on his side, the weather.
“Fortunately, the weather was still warm. It snowed shortly thereafter which I wouldn’t want to be in. I wasn’t prepared for snow,” continued Chapman.
Lost in the Kingdom, Chapman kept calm and positive.
“I wasn’t scared. My father asked me the same question. He said, weren’t you scared? No. Hungry, very hungry. I didn’t think about not making it out. You shouldn’t think about those things. That’s why we’re here,” added Chapman.
Multiple agencies from across New England descended on the Northeast Kingdom in search of Chapman. Days later, a break in the case came when New England K-9 Search and Rescue dog Olive and her handler Jennifer Vaughn found the butt of his rifle sticking up in a swamp.
“I’m on an excellent search and rescue team. They’re very dedicated and professional. It was an emotional moment, I have to say. We’re always very positive and we always feel like we’re going to find our subjects and we work really hard,” said Vaughn.
Olive is a golden retriever. The Chapmans have owned goldens for 30 years, making [the reunion] that much more special.
With that discovery, the focus of the search shifted and Chapman was found by a Border Patrol agent a day later, hours before snow started to fall.
“Just thank you. I didn’t realize they were there until the Border Patrol dropped down into the right of way that I was walking. I didn’t know anyone was out looking. I expected to get back,” said Chapman.
Lost or not, the K-9 teams are always ready.
“The K-9 teams are fabulous. They travel all over New England and they do this out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re professional, but not professional. It’s all a volunteer effort and it’s a tremendous effort,” said Jack’s wife, Debra Chapman.
For more information on New England K-9 Search and Rescue, click here.
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