Rescue dogs

Gloria Napier and her search and rescue dogs help find what’s been lost

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

Jthe rain isn’t over until Gloria is muddy or bloody. Or both.”

Of all the things Gloria Napier’s teammates say about her, this is perhaps the most telling, as it shows exactly how dedicated she is to her volunteer work. In all honesty, this search and rescue (SAR) dog handler job has become a full-time vocation over the past 24 years. And training is what she and her dogs, these days an 8-year-old yellow Labrador named Pearl and a 2-year-old black Labrador named Finley, do regularly to maintain their skills – running through dense woods or abandoned buildings, climbing hills and valleys, or climbing downed trees.

Sometimes they practice looking for a child who has run away or an elderly person who has wandered off. Sometimes they practice finding victims of crimes or suicides. Be that as it may, over the past 17 years (when Napier, her husband and four others co-founded Buckeye Search and Rescue Dogs), Napier, his teammates and their dogs have tackled sub-zero temperatures, deep lakes, dense forests, smoldering buildings and the wreckage of natural disasters in search of missing persons. “It’s the type of work that can really humble you,” Napier says. “It’s sometimes frustrating. It’s heartbreaking sometimes. But it’s an honor to be able to do this. »


Mhe husband and I are kind of an unusual entity in the search and rescue business in that we’ve both had missing persons,” says Napier, Pearl and Finley by his side. Both incidents happened in Greater Cincinnati decades ago, long before K9 SAR was a thing. In both cases, it took much longer than it should have to find the people in question. And in both cases, Napier and her husband were devastated when the bodies were finally found.

When Napier read years later about Carolyn Hebard, a K9 SAR industry pioneer whose dogs searched the world for missing people after earthquakes, bridge collapses, and more, her interest in the domain was pricked. “It mixed everything I love,” she says, noting her penchant for spending time outdoors, the fact that “I could empathize with families missing loved ones,” and the fact that “I love having this working relationship with dogs.”

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

She began volunteering as a trail runner, hiding on training trails so dogs in training could learn to track scents. After that, she spent two years “mentoring” other teams of handlers (essentially serving as a second human eye on the search). Finally, in 1998, she began training her first SAR dog, a Lab named Emma. “At the time, there really weren’t any certified dogs in Ohio,” Napier says, so she took out-of-state certification classes. (SAR dogs can be certified in everything from detecting underwater human remains to “urban man tracking.”) There she learned to read the dog and understand its body language. “My thought [was]: I can retrain it if I’m wrong, [but] Emma thinks: ‘I don’t know if I can retrain you” Napier said with a laugh. “Finally I learned to go with her. She was just amazing – a great first search dog.

No two search dogs are alike, Napier notes, but there are a few traits they all share: “Basically, we’re looking for this dog he’s a pain in the butt at home – independent, highly energetic, highly driven, highly intellectual, not easily scared, ready to face challenges with confidence and loves to play. Perhaps most important of all, however, is the dog’s ability to find and follow the scent without being distracted. “The bigger the nose, the more scent receptors they have,” says Napier, “so it might be a bit more difficult for a small dog.”

That said, Napier has seen plenty of small SAR dogs in her time — dachshunds, poo Yorkies and others can be great cadaver dogs, she notes — but “our team tends to have dogs bigger – German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Bloodhounds, Labs, Mixed Breeds – because we do a lot of work in the wilderness, so we want a dog that can maneuver over downed trees with ease’ and maintain stamina during long searches.

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

Although there are a few exceptions for adult dogs (notably Finley, who was adopted by the Napiers in October and who just started dead dog training at age 2), SAR dog training generally begins when are puppies and includes: obedience training; imprint them on scents (either of living humans or decomposing humans, depending on what kind of searches the dogs will be doing); distraction training (throwing food or animal bones to try to confuse dogs); and accustom them to strange surfaces – places like boats and dense forests, where research is often carried out. This also includes motivation, in the form of special treats and toys that dogs only receive when doing research work, which ensures that they enjoy doing their job.

In the end, she notes, “dogs have used their noses for thousands of years to find food, find mates, find shelter. All we do is take the natural ability of this dog [and] teach them to look for what we want them to look for.


Off duty, it is difficult to tell the difference between Pearl and Finley and any other well-behaved companion dog; Pearl sleeps quietly on the floor, Finley gently taps Napier when he’s bored, and both happily accept pets and love visitors. But when the call comes in for a search, their focus changes abruptly. In fact, says Napier, “Some things we have to spell. WORK is one. When the phone rings, they can say – probably because my tone of voice, my demeanor changes – it’s time to search. They get very excited, but they also escalate.

K9 SAR dogs are only certified as part of a team; in other words, the handler is just as important as the dog. “These are our pets,” Napier says. “They are our partners. They monitor our body language as closely as we monitor their body language. There is a link there.

So what exactly makes a good SAR dog handler? First, says Napier, “we don’t get paid to do this; we are volunteers. In fact, we pay money to do it. A lot of money.” She adds, “It’s almost like being a volunteer firefighter, you might get a call in the middle of the night from a lifeguard two hours away who needs help. go there the moment they find the person and you can turn around and go home.

Dog handlers must also be certified in a host of things, including human and canine first aid; CPR and AED; research management planning and operations; hazardous materials awareness; preservation of crime scenes; and incident management. And handlers should be physically fit, able to run alongside or right behind a fast-moving dog. “You really have to be there for the right reason,” says Napier. “If you like going out in the summer when it’s hot and sticky and sweaty and in the winter when it’s cold and wet then this is perfect for you.”

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, Napier, Emma and a team of three other dog/handler pairs camped out for six days at a Mississippi fairground after being called by law enforcement officials. Each day, Napier and the other dog handlers would take their dogs to a structure that had been decimated by the storm, determine which direction the storm had blown when it left, and then the dogs would sniff as far away from the debris field as possible. they might, looking for signs of life or human remains.

Together, Napier and Emma braved knee-deep mud, snakes, alligators, debris-covered pools, and endless piles of distracting (for a dog, anyway) household wrecks, including fridges and freezers full of rotten food. Every night Emma would finish her work dirty and exhausted, and Napier would bathe her at the campsite so she would be ready to start again the next day. They never found anyone, but Napier and Emma managed to help local security officials clear dozens of wreck sites.

“I get a lot of emails from people saying, This would be such a cool thing to do with my dogNapier explains. When she sends them an email detailing what it really is, “99.98% of the time I never hear from the person again.”


IIt’s easy to think that SAR missions always have a happy ending, but the truth is there’s a sad element to this job. “Sometimes it’s not the result you were hoping for,” says Napier. “As long as you are doing this research, especially if it is a child, you pray: Please let him be curled up somewhere on someone’s sleeping back porch.

Regardless of the outcome, families are usually very grateful. “A lot of research, they will come and want to meet the dogs and thank the handlers,” says Napier. ” It is really touching. I think having been there, you know what their anguish is.

Yet there are many success stories. Once, one of his teammates found an elderly man with a broken hip whose first words were, “I could use a little help here. Another time, a teammate was deployed to help find a 7-year-old boy. “They had been searching all day and it was almost getting dark and they called the dogs,” Napier says. “This massive sleuth named Ruby, in 15 minutes, was right after him. The first thing he said was, ‘I want my mommy!’ ”

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

In fact, the surprising good news about SAR is that “95% of living people who are lost – a child wanders off, a grandfather goes to the store and doesn’t come home, someone ‘one lost in a park – are found before we even get to the scene,” says Napier. “It’s the best search ever.”

Napier also wants people to know how much K9 SAR has grown in the 20+ years she has. “At one point, that resource just didn’t exist,” she says. “Now there are several good K9 search and rescue teams, many of them in Ohio. They work together, they train together. It was a lesson in humility to be only a small part of it. »