Thirty grade-school kids are gathered on a hill behind
the Waymer Center in Huntersville, while their teacher hides behind
an overgrown shrub 50 yards away.
They are about to watch search-and-rescue in action. A
dog named Ulysses will save the day with an ability no human can
His handler, Will Lashley of Fas-Trax K-9 Search and
Rescue, heads across the parking lot to a van, where his dogs await
the signal to start work. That signal is a special working harness,
and as it clicks onto Ulysses, the ones who aren’t selected begin to
bark. This is the work they have been bred for, and they love
Ulysses, a black German shepherd, erupts from the van.
He pulls the leash out straight in his excitement, and Lashley must
run to keep up. Ulysses pays no attention to the children or the
other people standing around on this blue and gold winter afternoon.
He is the picture of focus, stopping only long enough to take a deep
whiff of the teacher’s jacket. Now he’s making a beeline for the
shrub where the teacher is hunkered down out of sight. His nose is
pressed to the teacher’s exact route across the grass, almost as
though the footprints were visible.
“When that teacher walked across the grass, he left a
pool of scent,” says Jason Purgason, who has been a police dog
handler and trainer for 15 years, and now is one of Fas-Trax’s K-9
handlers. As he says this, Ulysses has already found the teacher. It
took only about 90 seconds, to the surprise of the children. Now
Lashley is cavorting with Ulysses at the site of the find – from a
distance, it looks like a victory dance. That’s because it is.
Ulysses’ reward for doing a good job is play time.
This demonstration is part of a program that the
Huntersville group takes to area schools to educate kids on what to
do if they are ever lost: Stay in one place, and don’t be afraid of
the dogs that come to find you. The big difference between these
dogs and the more highly publicized patrol or protection dogs is
that these dogs never bite or attack. It is foreign to both their
breeding and their training. A little later, the kids will gather to
meet the dogs and pet them.
Resource for Carolinas
K-9 Search and Rescue is a nonprofit team of six dogs and five
handlers ready to mount a search for a missing person at any time,
day or night, in North Carolina or South Carolina.
Team leaders Will Lashley and his wife, Kara, had
dreamed of having their own search and rescue group, and it has
taken several years of intense effort to make it a reality.
Will Lashley, a lawyer, has always loved and owned
dogs. His interest in having a working dog intensified when he met
Kara, a professional dog trainer. While the couple still lived in
Texas a few years ago, they bought Ulysses, who comes from a long
pedigree of European search and rescue dogs.
The Lashleys have gathered professional dog trainers
or law enforcement canine handlers to team with the dogs. All are
certified by the National Association for Search and Rescue and are
experts in canine and human CPR and first aid.
Fas-Trax uses only hand-selected dogs, usually
imported from Europe, with distinguished tracking dog ancestry. They
have gone to tracking certification school for about two years, and
their training center, Tarheel Canine in Sanford, is known as one of
the premier training venues. Tarheel even goes to Europe to select
specially bred dogs for groups such as Fas-Trax.
Ulysses’ specialty is tracking living people, but he
also is trained as a cadaver dog and is about to begin water cadaver
training, where he must learn to determine the presence of a body
underwater just by hanging over the side of a boat and using his
Very discriminating noses
lowest common denominator is scent. Dogs’ noses are millions of
times more sensitive than ours,” Will Lashley says. “As I like to
explain it, we can smell a cake baking. A dog smells flour, milk,
eggs, butter and sugar. Dogs can make a fine distinction between
scents. Imprint the dog with the chosen scent, and it’s a game. The
reward is finding the scent.”
Ulysses has been trained to identify and search out
the one scent associated with lost or kidnapped humans: adrenaline,
which people secrete when lost or under duress. As a cadaver dog, he
has been trained to recognize essences of preputrefaction and
postputrefaction. He also can track a person by scent from something
such as the teacher’s jacket.
Training is intensive and is followed by certification
The other dogs on Fas-Trax’s roster are either German
shepherds or Belgian Malinois, which look like a smaller, brown
shepherd with a black snout. The key is the long snout for scooping
Because tracking can be a matter of life or death, all
are kept as working dogs, not as pets. That means they generally
live with their handler, but spend their downtime in crates rather
than on the couch. They are taken out several times a day for
specific purposes, such as feeding, play and practice sessions. The
idea is to conserve their energy for their work. The dogs and
handlers practice tracking two to four times a week, and get
together as a group once a month. A casual observer can see that the
dogs love their work.
On the job
Fas-Trax has not been
called on a search in the Lake Norman area – yet. But Dave Thornton,
a dog handler and investigator with the Sanford Police Department,
has worked with the group.
“We had an abduction/kidnapping in our area. We had to
call Fas-Trax five or six times. Each time, they had to track
through the worst conditions in woods and swamp. But we had no
choice. We had to follow up every lead, every time we got one.”
The dogs investigated every lead without bringing
anyone home, but the police are reluctant to say more because of
family privacy issues.
The case has not been solved.
“A lot of people are unaware this resource exists,”
Thornton says. “These are brilliant animals. I have trained with the
dogs they use, and I know and trust them. A dog’s going to be twice
as fast at finding someone as a human.”
Want to Know More?
Search and Rescue is a nonprofit organization depending upon
donations and memberships. Its services are provided at no cost. Law
enforcement agencies and schools may contact Kara or Will Lashley at
(704) 453-6308. The Web address is http://www.fas-trax.org/.