White Rock woman trains dogs to look for the lost and dead

December 18, 2018

Piper the black Labrador dog moved quickly over the snow-laced ground, intently focused on the job at hand: finding human remains.

It’s a task that search-and-rescue professionals give to dogs like Piper, canines that can be taught to follow the scent of blood, bones and flesh in the wake of disasters like the recent California wildfires.

Piper’s owner, Lette Birn, watched carefully as Piper went about her search during a training exercise Monday off the Calabasas Trailhead in Santa Fe’s La Tierra trail system. Birn had hidden a glass jar stuffed with a cloth that once had been wrapped under a dead body.

Within a minute Piper found the jar, nestled in a mound of branches, and alerted Birn by barking. Birn rewarded the 4-year-old canine with a round of play with a tug toy.

“She’s all business, very stable,” Birn said of Piper. “She’s not rattled by things. She listens very well.”

It can be grisly work but vital to helping assuage survivors who want to know the fate of loved ones, which is one reason the 70-year-old White Rock resident has worked with an array of such dogs over decades to help search for remains in New Mexico and nationally.

Among the disaster scenes she has helped scour were the damage left by the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon and the aftermath of the 2003 Moore tornado outside Oklahoma City.

Last month, Birn and Piper spent two days searching the ashen rubble left by the deadly Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif. That fast-moving fire killed at least 85 people as wind pushed it across 400-plus square miles, destroying 14,000 homes.

A PBS television news crew caught footage of Piper searching through rain-soaked, charred ruins, barking alerts when she thought she found remains. Birn was clad in protective gear because of the possibility of toxic chemicals in the air. In such cases, when it’s difficult for Piper to hear Birn speak, hand signals and commands direct the dog.

Birn said dogs don’t get discouraged performing such challenging deeds. “They can get frustrated if they don’t find a deceased person,” she said. “That’s their job. They get rewarded for a find.”

Birn performs equally important work with her other adult black Lab, 10-year-old Finnegan, whose job is to find the living: those who become lost while hiking or who wander off because they become confused or suffer from dementia. Like Piper, Finnegan underwent at least 18 months of training with Birn, learning how to find a lost person by scent.

Birn said the work is not unlike movie scenarios where the loyal dog — say, Lassie or Rin Tin Tin — tracks down a kid in danger and then races back to town to alert rescuers and lead them out to save the day.

Bob Rodgers, New Mexico State Police search and rescue coordinator, estimates that search dogs like Finnegan are employed in about 90 percent of rescue missions.

“Those canines are a very valuable resource for us,” he said. “On a windy day I can’t use a helicopter, but I can use a good search dog 24 hours a day. They’re not weather dependent.”

Birn said nothing is more thrilling than when “a dog comes back to you with an alert that it has found someone who is lost.”

Birn, who was born in Denmark, moved to the area in the early 1980s with her husband, a German scientist now retired from Los Alamos National Laboratory. A lifelong dog lover, in 1990 she took part in a horseback search for a lost hiker in Bandelier National Monument and saw some trained dogs in action.

“I was sold,” she said. “I said, ‘That’s what I want to do. I loved the idea of using dogs to help.’”

She learned how to train dogs in part by reading works by Bill Tolhurst, who penned The Police Textbook for Dog Handlers to teach readers how to train dogs to track people, find cadavers and sniff out articles and items of interest. She attended some seminars and workshops he ran and joined the Mountain Canine Corps, a component of New Mexico’s search and rescue teams.

She bought an 8-week-old bloodhound pup from a Wisconsin breeder and named the animal Miss Marple, after the fictional sleuth in Agatha Christie novels. Miss Marple became an expert in tracking footsteps based on the scent of the person she was following.

A few years later Birn got her first black Labrador, who she named Guinness, and then another, Spencer. As she worked with her dogs, Birn gave each a separate job. Some were trained to find the living, some to uncover the dead.

Many types of dogs can be bred and trained for this kind of work, she says, but they have to have an inherent talent for searching and hunting and be focused on their mission.

“They have to have an extraordinary drive but also a stable temperament. Labs fit that,” she said. “They are obsessed. They don’t stop working. If you bought one for a pet they’d drive you crazy, they’d drop the ball at your feet all day long. They’d never stop.”

Since Finnegan is close to being retired, Birn just bought a new black Lab pup, Pinja (a name Birn says reflects a cross between a pirate and a ninja) to train for live search-and-rescue operations. Birn will start Pinja in basic training exercises, like having a human teammate take the dog’s toy and then disappear into the woods. Over time, Birn will add “more and more complications, more and more problems, to the search.”

When it comes to finding human remains, dogs can learn in training sessions by finding bones she acquires from companies that offer skeletons to medical researchers and from cloths and sheets that morticians have used to wrap bodies.

“You slowly build a scent picture for the dog,” Birn said.

Birn says she never gets depressed while focusing on getting the job done. She said it’s especially rewarding to find the living. She still remembers how, one morning around 4 o’clock, Guinness found four small children and their family dog after they became lost overnight at the Santa Fe ski basin area.

Another time, while searching for an elderly man with Alzheimer’s who had wandered away, Guinness led Birn to the door of a house where a neighbor of the missing man lived. The man was not there, but it turned out that the neighbor, trying to help police, had gone to the missing man’s house and taken an article of clothing to give to searchers.

Guinness tracked that scent to this woman. “He was that good,” Birn said. The man was later found safe.

Birn said she is just one small part of a “very, very dedicated community doing this. We do it because if you’ve ever been on a search where someone is lost and you see family members, friends and loved ones there, it hits home that this could happen to any of us.”

Update hourly