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Search and rescue dogs show off their stuff at Seaport demonstration

August 6, 2018

Mystic — Don’t let the smiles and wagging tails fool you — the dogs running around on the Mystic Seaport Museum docks Sunday afternoon were hard at work.

Three canine volunteers, paid in hot dogs, and their owners, paid in slobbery kisses, demonstrated the work they do as certified members of Connecticut Canine Search and Rescue on Sunday, sniffing out simulated drowning victims in scuba gear.

Human beings, both dead and alive, give off a scent that rises to the surface of the water strong enough for trained dogs to sniff out. Marian Belard’s Portuguese water dog Ted, a veteran search-and-rescue dog, scanned the water from an inflatable boat just off the docks during Sunday’s demonstration, zeroing in on the scent coming from two divers even through their wetsuits and several feet of water.

Within a minute, Ted sounded the alarm. He barked and barked, loud enough for the whole Seaport to hear, until the diver, a volunteer with the Woodstock Dive Team, surfaced and fed his rescuer a hot dog.

Ted and the other dozen certified dogs certified through Connecticut Canine Search and Rescue respond to around 15 calls a year, their owners often called into action after a person has been missing for more than 24 hours or to join a bigger team of dogs during disasters. Depending on the amount of training they’ve had, they can track a particular person after a whiff of one of their belongings, find bodies hundreds of feet underwater or find human remains that could be anywhere in a 40-acre area in a couple of hours.

The dogs’ heightened sense of smell can make the search for a drowning victim easier and safer for rescue divers, said volunteer Brian Beley.

“It makes the effort of the dive teams much more efficient,” he said.

Some of the dogs’ owners got into search and rescue as an outlet for their dogs’ energy.

“He needed a job,” Beth Sullivan said, looking down at her short-haired German shephard, Blitz. “He just went and he loved it.”

Blitz recently helped in the recovery of a person with Alzheimer’s disease who went missing, Sullivan said. She said she keeps Blitz in shape in part by asking people to hide in the woods near her house and sending him out to find them.

“They can cover so much land to find that human scent,” she said.

Dogs have arrived at scenes where searchers have been looking for more than a day to find victims in less than an hour, said Beland, a longtime Connecticut Canine Search and Rescue volunteer who has helped train three of her dogs over the last 20 years.

She said she was inspired by seeing images of rescue dogs searching for victims of a 2017 earthquake in Mexico City. When she later heard about Connecticut Canine Search and Rescue, she said, “I had a Rottweiler that loved people, had insatiable curiosity and endless energy.”

That Rottweiler became the first of three that Beland has had trained, responding to look for people in floodwaters in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina and all over New England. She said while the dogs see every call as a game or an opportunity to get a treat, she treats every call as life-or-death, even if most of the evidence points to the person being okay.

“The saying is that ‘every search is an emergency,’” she said. “If they’re missing, (you should) find them as soon as possible.”

Finding the remains of a person who has died can be hard, the volunteers said, but they take comfort in helping the families of missing people know more about the death of their loved one, they said. And even if they don’t find anything, Beland said, the effort can still be helpful.

“We can at least say, ‘not here.’”

m.shanahan@theday.com

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