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Coming to the rescue
Trained dogs track missing persons

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 match.

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 it.

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
Fas-Trax 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 nose.

Very discriminating noses
“The 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 tests.

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 up scent.

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?
Fas-Trax K-9 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/.