New Mexico Badlands Search and Rescue trains dogs to find missing people

Hannah Grover
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — A year ago, northwest New Mexico didn't have a canine search and rescue team.

But that changed after a police officer riding his bike through a Farmington park noticed a group of dog owners training their canines in schutzhund, a method developed in the early 1900s to train German police dogs.

Schutzhund training involves scent work, which inspired the officer to approach the group and suggest starting a search and rescue team.

The new group, New Mexico Badlands Search and Rescue, was established in September. In April, it was recognized as a nonprofit, and it was listed as a resource for New Mexico last month.

"These dogs go out and find people where there normally wouldn't be a scent," said Kelly Everett, a dog trainer on the team who owns German Shepherds.

When the dogs find people, they return to their handlers to lead them to the lost person.

"They do not stand and bark like television says," Everett said.

The dogs are trained extensively to track down missing people on 40 to 80 acres, but the handlers also have to be trained. All of them, Everett said, have basic wilderness survival skills.

Since its formation, the New Mexico Badlands Search and Rescue team has been called out once to search for a missing person. The dogs did not pick up on a scent, and the person, as far as Everett knows, is still missing.

The team consists of a dozen dogs and is always looking for new members. Even people without dogs can join the team and help in other ways like radio control, ground search and navigators, Everett said.

Teams also carry radios, and handlers are accompanied by navigators who know how to use maps and compasses, said Vern Lyautey, another team member.

New Mexico Badlands Search and Rescue is also asking for donations of teeth, placenta or umbilical cord tissue to help train cadaver dogs. The artificial scent developed to train cadaver dogs isn't as effective, which is why the team is looking for donations, said Eric Tanguay, the team's human remains dog specialist.

Tanguay said if people are interested in training their dogs to be cadaver dogs, they need to know it is a slow process and not every dog can be trained. First of all, the dogs can't be scared of the scent of a dead body.

"You want one that's not as attached to the attention of finding a (living) human," Tanguay said.

Cadaver dogs search a smaller area than dogs who search for missing people.

While the dogs searching for missing people return to their handlers and lead them to the people, cadaver dogs sit by the body until their handlers — who are usually within eyesight of the dog — arrive.

The dog and handler also have to be careful not to disturb anything as they radio to report the body.

"We have to look at every scene as being a crime scene," Tanguay said.

While it can be disturbing for the handlers to find bodies, Tanguay said it is worth it to make sure families aren't wondering for years what happened.

"To us, the closure side is more important," he said.

Groups get dogs and their owners outdoors

Several San Juan County groups provide weekly dog training opportunities and chances to get outdoors and explore.

Four Corners Australian Shepherd Association: This group offers chances to train dogs in activities like rally, obedience, confirmation and agility. It's open to all breeds and hosts fun days like scavenger hunts and camping. "The main thing is you can come and spend time with your dog because that creates the bond," trainer Kim Anderson said.

More info:

New Mexico Badlands Search and Rescue: The search and rescue team offers free obedience classes at 9 a.m. every Saturday at Westland Dog Park, located in western Farmington off of Parque De Oeste Drive.

More info:

Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times as well as general news. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.