If you get lost hunting or wander off a hiking trail, a select group of volunteers may come to look for you. K-9 search and rescue teams spend countless hours training to make sure they can find you when you’re lost.
German shepherd Kia lifts her nose in the air, sniffs, and takes off. Kia is searching a nature preserve in the middle of Richland, Washington. She’s searching for missing hikers.
Miles of hiking trails wind around sagebrush and brambles. It’s bordered by the Yakima River.
Gina McNearney is Kia’s owner. She’s had Kia since she was a puppy. McNearney and has been training her to become a search and rescue dog since she was 5 months old. Now, she’s 2.
McNearney isn’t far behind Kia. Jingle bells are tied around Kia’s collar so that McNearney can hear her when Kia is running through the desert brush.
Today, Kia and McNearney are looking for two volunteers posing as missing hikers.
Search and Rescue teams must volunteer at least 30 hours a year, not to mention at home practice to hone the dogs’ skills.
“You spend as much time doing this, they definitely become like your child, my best friend,” McNearney says.
The dogs have to practice to learn how to deal with different situations. Kia hasn’t worked this type of terrain before.
All of the other animal scents, like deer, create a potpourri of smells. They’re so enticing for Kia that at first, it’s hard for her to concentrate on her search.
She’s searching for Harry Visser. He is one of today’s volunteer missing hikers. Right now, search and rescue team member Barb Lee helps him hide behind brambles and in between several tree stumps.
“Can you fit in between those to logs right there and sit there?” Lee says.
“Yeah,” Visser says.
“Because the curve of the branch and everything will help hide you,” Lee says.
Now Visser is out of sight for those walking the winding path several feet away.
To find Visser, Kia is using a search method known as air scent. Lee says that’s the most common way of looking for a lost person.
“The missing hiker, when you send a dog out, they’re just looking for human scent. They’re going to go to whatever they find, and if they find somebody that is not lost, we reward the dog anyway and say, ‘Good job. You did great. And tell them to keep on working,” Lee says.
Kia’s nose leads her to several hikers, dogs, and a tarp with human scent as she searches for Visser.
Kia has to search a 40-acre area. She hasn’t yet figured out that Visser is hidden about a hundred yards away at this point in her search. But she’s heading closer.
Dogs’ noses are up to 100 times more powerful than humans’. That’s why Kia’s owner, Gina McNearney, says she has faith in her dog.
“She’s always right, so why am I not going to trust her? She’s proven so many times,” McNearney says.
About an hour in to this search, Kia finds the brambles where missing hiker Harry Visser is hiding.
She makes her way to the two stumps, strikes a proud, nose-in-the-air pose, as if to say, Look, I did it. Then she runs back to McNearney. Kia is happy after a hard day’s work.
A few more successful practice runs like this one, and Kia should be ready to find a lost hiker in real life - hopefully this spring.
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