Monday, 10 December 2018
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Dogs, rain, poison ivy, heat: These women find purpose in K9 search and rescue operations

Lisa Smith and LeeAnn Tufte have channeled their passion for dogs and helping others into working as search-and-rescue volunteers throughout Kansas.

The two women have formed Kansas Search and Rescue, a coalition of handlers with K9 teams that support law enforcement in a variety of tracking needs, from scent trailing to searching for cadavers. The two bring different backgrounds to the sometimes challenging work, but share an unabashed love for the dogs who own them.

The training of dogs to follow scent trails, do “live find,” which is searching for any live human, or to find cadavers requires a lot of time spent outside. The conditions, especially given Kansas’ weather extremes, aren’t always pleasant.

“It’s not the ticks. It’s not the rain. It’s not those things we go through, but it’s rewarding,” Tufte said. “That’s why we go through those things. I was in the Army too. You train to what your environment is.”

As a former law enforcement officer who worked with the Bureau of Prisons for 25 years, Tufte was pulled to Salt Lake City in September 2011 to provide security working with the Secret Service. While she was there, she teamed with a K9 unit and became fascinated with how the dogs helped in the work they were doing. 

She also learned how fulfilling it was to find someone.

“We had a little girl that was lost in amongst everybody at the Salt Lake Olympics,” Tufte said. “She was about 7. You’ve got 7,000, 8,000 people walking around. I saw her sitting over at this picnic table, and I could just see her sobbing. The feeling of finding the missing, that’s why I got into it.”

Smith said she has been reaching out to area law enforcement to make sure they know she and Tufte are available to help them with searches. They’ve been called into a few, but would like to make stronger connections. They also have worked with other search and rescue organizations.

Much of their time is spent training  with their dogs to make sure they’re ready for what can be varied search situations. The two women have sought out training themselves, as it’s critical they understand scent theory and law enforcement procedures.

Hot, dry weather like Kansas experiences in the summer months is the toughest for dogs to find scent trails, Smith said. Damp weather keeps the scent closer to the ground, helping the dogs to pick it up.

The women talk to many local groups, including Boy Scout troops who also volunteer to be the subjects their dogs are trying to find. To explain how dogs smell, Smith said, they use the example of a bakery.

“You walk into the bakery and you go ‘Ahh, man, that smells so good. They’re baking bread and cookies,'” Smith said. “The dog walks in and goes, ‘They’ve got wheat flour. They’ve got rye flour. They’ve got brown sugar. They’ve got white sugar. They’ve got vanilla. They’ve got three different kinds of chocolate chips in here.'”

They also use the example of how campfire smoke moves around the fire in different weather to help young people understand how scent trails flow and move, Smith said.

As part of the training, it’s important to identify what reward the dog cares about, and also to work with them enough to understand what kind of trailing they do best, she said.

“Their reward system at the end of that training exercise has to be something that they just really prize over their own activities of chasing smells or chasing rabbits or birds or butterflies,” Smith said. “We have to really find the reward that motivates them to play this game.”

The rewards vary from liverwurst for Tufte’s dog, Paco, to a squirt gun for Smith’s dog, Sir.

Finding subjects who will hide and let the dogs trail them — and then make a big fuss and love on the dogs when they are found — is an important part of their training. Smith said they always needs volunteers to help with that, and encouraged people to reach out to them through their website at

Learning to read their dogs can make the difference in doing an effective search, Tufte said.

She recalled running her dog through a certification course through Global Safety K9 Ops in Wichita and how challenging it was because of the wind eddies for the dog to follow the scent trail.

“We got to a T in the road, and his head popped, and then he kept going the other way,” she said. “Then I noticed he’s kind of wandering around, really can’t find what he’s looking for. As a handler, your job is, ‘ahhh, we’ll go back to the head pop.’ He did a little bit of a trail then. He put his nose down and then he came back up and the scent was coming. Because the wind was blowing the way it was, he didn’t quite catch the scent. He caught it a little bit and then went underneath it. If I hadn’t seen that head pop — you really have to watch your dog and read them.”

The dog was able to pick up the trail at that spot and find the subject.

Their work also requires the women to be sensitive to people who are onsite during a search, such as family members, and to be educated in and careful of law enforcement techniques. That’s one reason they won’t do a search when only family members reach out to them, but will tell them to ask law enforcement to request their presence, Smith said.

For instance, if they go out with family searching for a missing child and they find a body, the people with them may run into the field and contaminate the scene. And, unfortunately, Smith said, they can’t ignore the fact that one of those people may have been involved in what happened to the child.

“It’s a resource to law enforcement,” Tufte said of how she looks at their services. “It’s like a tool. From my perspective, you’ve got fingerprints as a tool. You’ve got different types of law enforcement techniques that are tools. And this is the same thing. It is a tool for them to utilize and not have to use their bite-work canines.”

Law enforcement sometimes don’t like to use their K9 dogs for searches because they’re often trained to bite when they find the subject, Smith said.

As volunteers like most search and rescue K9 units in the state, Smith and Tufte pay for all their own expenses, including hundreds of dollars in seminar fees and to stay in hotels and eat while assisting with searches.

But they reiterated the importance of the work being done.

“The training, the poison ivy, the ticks and chiggers, we still do it for closure. To find the missing, whether it’s alive or not, to help somebody get the answers,” Smith said. “We hope we have the live find.”


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