Scarpello has been leading a team of amateur search and rescue dog trainers for about three years. But he only realized the potential of working dogs at a fateful moment with his own pet.
One winter, Scarpello’s dog, Bella, picked up an odor and followed it to her neighbor.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this dog is really talented,'” he said. “So I just started training with her and that led to this.”
Almost every Saturday, Scarpello and his friends gather at different locations to orchestrate search and rescue missions with their dogs. Today they met at Plymouth Whitemarsh High School.
The handler and his dog hide while someone volunteers to “get lost”. By sniffing a piece of clothing or a personal object, the dog will find the “lost” person in a few minutes.
But Scarpello said it was getting too easy for the puppies.
“The dogs keep following the same people, the same people. The training is decreasing, so we need new smells and new people to do things,” he said. “And my wife suggested I do an ad.”
Scarpello’s post on the Nextdoor app asked for volunteers to introduce new scents for dogs.
“I had 70 responses. It was overwhelming,” he said. “And so far we’ve had five new people every week. They’re out here blazing trails and waiting for a big dog to come find them.”
Neighbors and strangers were also enamored with the idea.
“I thought, well, I love animals and I’m around, so I’m going to give it a try,” said Barbara Chaapel, who wanted to help a dog learn how to help someone else.
“A child, an elderly person with Alzheimer’s disease, you don’t know,” she said.
As much as it helps the dogs, it also helps the volunteers get out of the house and do something fun.
“I play hide and seek with a dog,” said Estella Clifford. “I’m retired and thought it was something I could do as a volunteer.”
Scarpello hopes the recent surge in interest will propel their grassroots organization forward.
“Right now it’s a hobby group. We have dedicated people coming out and they’re enjoying it,” he said. “But if we have two or more of our titled dogs, we would like to be a search and rescue group for this area here.”
Scarpello worked closely with the Eastern States Working Dog Association to get the proper training. Among the group, three dogs are professionally titled. However, they are not yet a formal emergency response team. Anyone wishing to report a missing person should contact law enforcement immediately.
The team hopes that more local facilities will offer their large spaces to mix up the training grounds. New volunteers are not immediately sought but are welcome. To get involved, contact Frank Scarpello at [email protected]
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