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Hounds train so they can track

January 11, 2004|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

bonnieb@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Several bloodhounds sniffed their way around Penn Hall retirement complex on U.S. 11 on Saturday morning, followed by their handlers and other bloodhound owners.

Despite temperatures in the teens, handlers brought their dogs from Reading, Lancaster, Camp Hill, and New Jersey to practice their search and rescue skills and learn from each other.

Chambersburg resident Dianne Fissel, who with her bloodhound, Brutus, makes up Pleasant View Search and Rescue, said, "We have to know how to work the dogs in any weather. We train in rain, snow, sleet, heat and cold," as people may have to be located in any kind of weather.

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The group, which meets every six weeks, varies the locales in which they train the dogs. They've been to outlet malls, cities, rural areas, state parks, and even a sewer treatment plant.

"The dogs work different on pavement than on grass," Fissel said. The dog and handler work as a team, with the handler learning to read the dog's body language.

Al Means of Lancaster, who with his wife, Patty Means, heads the Red Rose K-9 Search and Rescue Team, said that bloodhounds are the only dogs with the natural instinct to drop their nose and track humans.

"Others dogs are taught," he said. "Bloodhounds train the handler.

"These dogs trail, not track," Means said. "Trailing involves air and ground scent. The dogs are following the scent of dead skin cells that all humans shed. The myth that criminals can escape a bloodhound by going through water is not true. If the cells fall on water, they float toward the bank, and the dog will follow this along the edge of the water."

Bloodhounds are uniquely suited to their job, according to Fissel.

"The dog can't see when his head is down; his wrinkles fall around his face, but that holds the scent in. The long ears go back and forth, sweeping the dead skin cells into the nose. Drool creates a steam effect. He has extra skin so he can go through bushes and briars without his skin tearing. And the heart, lungs and feet are large because these dogs will go and go. They're tenacious; you have to know when your dog is tired or thirsty, and stop him."

Tattoo, a 7-year-old bloodhound owned and handled by Janet Kelly of New Jersey, excelled on a cold trail.

Cindy Tolbert of Chambersburg, Fissel's sister, had walked through the retirement complex the previous afternoon to lay down a scent to replicate an elderly person wandering off.

When Kelly let Tattoo sniff a tissue that Cindy had handled, he sniffed everyone in the group so he could eliminate their smell, then led Kelly on a brisk 15-minute walk to where Tolbert was sitting in another part of the complex. When Tattoo came near Tolbert, he walked around her.

"He was smelling for her, not looking for her," Means explained. He finally put his paws on her, to much praise from the group.

The dogs must learn to work with a lot of people around, as on a search and rescue mission they are usually followed by law enforcement personnel and emergency medical technicians, Means explained.

Means said his most rewarding experience with bloodhounds was finding a Lancaster County 4-year-old who had been outside in 18-degree weather for two hours in only a T-shirt, sneakers and jeans. After sniffing the child's blanket, Means's dog, Hannah, took only 15 minutes to find the boy.

Bloodhounds can trail better when the ground is wet, Fissel said. "They can even trail someone who was riding in a car, if the window was open. We've had kids ride bikes or skateboards, their feet not on the ground, and the dog can still trail." When Fissel puts the harness on Brutus, he knows its time to work. To practice following a hot trail, she let him sniff a baseball a child had recently left on the grounds.

"Find," she commanded Brutus. Brutus found the boy, who was hiding behind a tree, within a few minutes.

A secretary at the IRS computing center in Martinsburg, W.Va., Fissel put Brutus in harness for search and rescue training in March 2000.

"It takes two years to ready a dog for service," she said. "It's a big-time commitment, hundreds of hours."

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