Having been formed in June of last year, southern Missouri’s Region G K-9 Search Team is still going through what might be called its formative stages.
Coordinator and Texas County resident Joe Marsillo has recently trimmed the squad’s roster, cropping a few members who he felt had proven to be less than dedicated. The team, which covers the same nine-county area as Missouri State Highway Patrol Troop G, now includes nine handlers and 10 search dogs.
“These nine people are serious and they want to train,” Marsillo said. “When you join an organization like this, it’s no different than a fire department or the National Guard, you have to train. If you don’t show up to train, don’t respond to emails and you only want to go out on a big call, that tells me you’re not interested.
“Insurance is expensive, and I’m not going to insure people who don’t participate.”
Three of the team’s dogs reside at Marsillo’s property east of Cabool (which features a training facility and lots of kennel space), while others live with handlers in West Plains, Willow Springs and St. Claire. Five of the animals are certified by the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) in wide area search, which involves tracking, trailing and finding live victims or subjects.
All of the team’s handlers and animals regularly gather at Marsillo’s place for training on weekends, where the finishing touches will soon be put on 10 new kennel spaces designed to provide overnight accommodations to visiting dogs. Combined with ample bed space inside Marsillo’s home, that means the whole team could potentially train together for multiple days at a time.
“We’ll do big meals together and sit around the table and plan what we want to do in the future,” Marsillo said. “We don’t just train and go home – that’s kind of brought us closer together.”
Training sessions are as much for the team’s human members as its dogs. Region G’s handlers are all certified by NASAR, but getting to that point requires hours of preparation and repetition.
“You spend a lot more time in training than you do in real searches,” Marsillo said.
In order for a dog to be certified by NASAR, its handler must earn SARTECH II search technician certification. Marsillo said other organizations certify dogs, but don’t require handler certification.
“With NASAR, you have to take a 145-question test and several practical tests, including ropes, packs, trailing, and clue finding,” Marsillo said. “That forces you to get some kind of training. I think that’s important.”
Obedience is a foundation that must be laid prior to training a dog for K-9 search.
“Because if the dog won’t come to you, you don’t have anything,” Marsillo said. “Once they’ll listen to you, then you can start playing the little games that teach them the rest.”
Barking is a desired “alert” symbol, so training games are designed to get the dog to vocalize. For example, one handler might take a dog’s favorite toy a distance away while another handler holds the dog. Then, the dog is released and runs toward the person holding the prize.
When the dog barks, the toy is handed over. Distances are increased and scent trails are lengthened. As time goes by, the dog associates barking with getting something good or having done a good job.
“That’s how you teach them to find people,” Marsillo said. “You don’t really have to teach dogs how to use their noses, because they’ve been doing that for thousands of years. That’s how they hunt – they track things with their nose.
“At search seminars around the country, they spend more time fixing handler problems than anything. They know who the smart one on the end of the leash is, and it’s not the handler.”
Training dogs for K-9 search is really all about capitalizing on capabilities they already have.
“They say if you take a baby’s tear drop and put it in the middle of a football field, a dog can find it,” Marsillo said. “If we walk into a bakery, we smell bread. If a dog walks into a bakery, they smell butter, vanilla extract and all the other ingredients.
“They can separate all those smells, and a good search dog will just concentrate on one and go right past the others.”
One of the techniques Marsillo has been training in of late is water search and rescue. He and his dog Bera, (who is already certified in human remains detection – HRD – and along with Marsillo searched for remains in post-tornado Joplin) recently traveled to College Point, Texas, for training with water rescue and recovery expert Ben Alexander.
As is the case in training dogs for most search techniques, it all comes down to the animal finding the source and getting a reward, usually involving his or her favorite toy.
“After they’re trained, when they go out into the water and the scent gets real strong, they start circling,” Marsillo said. “To get them to do that, we had to into the lake with our dogs and coax them in. Once they came in, we took their toy and went in a circle and then we’d give it to them. Finally, when they would come out, we would go under water and the dog would circle around above us and we would pop us and give them the toy.
“From there, you put them in the boat and start all over again. You’ve got the divers in the water and the cadaver material in a bucket. When the dog gets to that area and smells it and barks, they get the toy. The final stage is when there’s nobody in the water, but the bucket with the material in it is there. Attached to the bucket is a pulley with the toy, and when the dog smells that cadaver and barks, the rope is let go and the toy pops up.”
The cadaver material Marsillo and other handlers often use in HRD training is placenta obtained from birthing sources – like midwives and nurses – who receive permission to give it away.
Land-based HRD training often involves the material being contained in a rag or towel and hidden in such a way that a dog must work to find it by smell.
But even with trained dogs using a sense of smell hundreds of times more sensitive than that of humans, searching sometimes comes down to relying on basic methods involving logic, diligence, and a little luck. For example, the Region G team recently assisted the Howell County Sheriff’s Department in a search for the remains of a newborn that had a month earlier been tossed over a fence by the mother into a bushy, wooded area. After K-9 sniffing came up empty, the team employed a grid-search that quickly resulted in a find.
“We were about 10 feet apart and were going to search every inch of the ground leading up a hill,” Marsillo said. “We got about 30 yards in and my dog and I almost stumbled over it.”
While freelance K-9 search teams that cater to private interests exist in some areas, the Region G team basically works only when contacted by one of the nine sheriff’s departments in its area.
“A lot of people are under the impression that a fire department or a K-9 team is in charge of a search,” Marsillo said. “But in every county in Missouri, it’s the sheriff that’s in charge of a search and rescue operation. He may have someone else running it – like a fire department – but the sheriff is in charge and everything goes through him.
“We’re just there to assist the sheriff.”
Marsillo said another common misconception is that drug dogs or search dogs need to be of a specific breed to perform properly.
“There are some teams that for whatever reason demand that all of their dogs be the same breed, like German Shepherd,” he said. “But I want people to understand that the dog they have that they’re going to take to the pound and they think is worthless could turn out to be a good search and rescue dog. I’ve had three dogs that were basically throw-aways.”
One of the best examples of an unwanted dog becoming a K-9 search expert is Boomer, a male black lab mix whose owner was threatening to shoot if a home wasn’t found for him within a week. Marsillo took Boomer, and he’s now certified in wide area search and has been on more than two-dozen jobs in Illinois and Missouri.
“I would dare to say that there are more mixed-breed dogs out there doing search and rescue than anything else,” Marsillo said.
The all-volunteer Region G K-9 team receives no government money and relies on donations and self-funding to exist. Recent contributions include radios from a fire chief in Lanton, Mo., and a $900 donation from a hazardous materials team for the purchase of GPS units.
Also, the Regional Homeland Security Oversight Committee based in West Plains is considering providing funding for insurance to the team, and a letter is being sent to the Department of Conservation requesting the donation of a small, flat-bottom boat and motor for river searches and recoveries.
“It’s coming together,” Marsillo said. “A lot of people are realizing what they’ve got down here and that we’re serious, and they’re kind of happy that we’re doing it. I feel lucky to have a team like we have and I’d put it up against any other that’s around.”