By Dominik Lobkowicz
Search dog Renya at Wavus Camps in Jefferson. (Photo courtesy Leslie Howe)
About 25 handler/dog teams came to Wavus Camps in Jefferson between April 11 to 13 to learn about scent and do practical training with Maine Search and Rescue Dogs.
According to organization President Deb Palman, Maine Search and Rescue Dogs, or MESARD, is a volunteer group that specializes in using dogs to locate lost and
The group has around 28 handler/ dog teams, according to its website, which can vary based on a team’s current certification status, Palman said.
About 18 of the group’s teams came throughout the training at Wavus, and were joined by three teams each from the Maine Warden Service, the New Hampshire Fish and
Game Department, and a team from the Maine State Police.
The three days of training were special, Palman said, because MESARD brought in Tom Osterkamp from Missouri to lecture to the teams. Osterkamp, is a specialist in
how scent behaves and is transported.
Scent specialist Tom Osterkamp talks with Maine Search and Rescue Dogs team Sarah Robinson and Zeke. (Photo courtesy Leslie Howe)
The Saturday lecture, to which the conservation and law enforcement teams were invited, focused on how cadaver scent is transported and how various factors can impact it, Palman
For dogs detecting human remains, Osterkamp set up some scenarios to show how wind and sun can affect scent distribution, Palman said.
“We had one problem where we had a buried scent source, which was just fluid from decomposing bodies, and that was buried almost two weeks before we arrived, which
was quite a challenge because the ground was frozen,” Palman said.
The scenario was an attempt to duplicate a clandestine grave, which is quite a bit different than the training MESARD has done with snow burials of live people over
the winter, Palman said.
The other days the teams worked on practical exercises.
“It wasn’t easy because of the snow depth in the woods, but we did what we could and worked on obedience and details and just things we don’t often get to do at
regular trainings,” Palman said.
Maine Search and Rescue Dogs usually holds a one-day training once a month, and a seminar like the one at Wavus once a year, Palman said.
Though one new MESARD team attended, the training at Wavus was more like an in-service training for the group’s current members.
“We bring people on over a long period time basically because it takes probably 300 or 400 hours to train a dog and a handler to be mission ready,” Palman said.
Around 22 to 24 hours of training were available for teams this weekend, but it often takes two years to get a team fully up to speed, Palman said. Because of that
lead time, the group usually will not take on a dog any older than three years unless it has had a lot of previous training, she said.
The groups’ teams are concentrated in southern, central, and Downeast Maine because of the need of teams to have other teams to train with, Palman said. Those in
western Maine or Aroostook County have to travel for hours to train with other teams, she said.
There is no geographic area teams are responsible for, and teams usually respond to any search they are available for, Palman said. Due to the effectiveness of the
Maine Warden Service with search and rescue, the MESARD teams are usually only called out 20 to 25 times a year to assist, she said.
Most MESARD dogs are “air-scent” dogs, Palman said, which don’t try to follow a person’s trail but search a given area in an attempt to locate a missing person.
Such a handler/dog team could search 40 “reasonable” acres – an area with good wind, vegetation that is not too thick, and a lack of other travel difficulties – in
about two hours, Palman said.
The group does have some “trailing” dogs that attempt to follow a missing person’s trail from where they were last seen, she said.
Palman said Wavus was suggested as a site for the training because some members had attended the camp previously.
“It was nice; because it was close to the lake and there was a lot of open country, a lot of the snow had melted. We could have been on snowshoes but we didn’t have
to be,” she said.
Palman complimented both the facilities and the service at Wavus.