Thursday, 13 December 2018
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Follow your nose: Local veterinarian trains dog for search and rescue

ASHLAND — Serving as a volunteer with two fire departments, Jennifer Lettich-Snyder saw the need for more search-and-rescue dogs locally during instances in which people went missing.

The area now benefits from the abilities of Charlotte, a redbone coonhound mix.

Snyder, 33, of Ashland, and Charlotte have committed to the extensive training required, and have been on-scene for about 10 searches. Though Charlotte didn’t “run” at all of them, she was there should searchers have required her talents.

Starting early

Snyder’s entrance into the world of search-and-rescue dog training came eight years ago with a different dog, but Snyder said things happened that prevented her from pursing the endeavor and she stopped.

A certified veterinarian technician at Anthracite Animal Clinic and part-time employee at Sunbury Animal Hospital, Snyder said the staff at Sunbury knew she had lost her first dog. In May 2016, the Sunbury hospital received a tiny redbone coonhound, the only survivor of her liter. The puppy required extra care and needed to be bottle fed, so they called Snyder, who has been taking care of Charlotte ever since.

The key to training dogs is to start them young, so the situation with Charlotte was perfect. Snyder began scent-training by putting Charlotte’s favorite toy in a bag with treats to saturate the scent and tease her with it, including dragging it across the ground.

It took two years until Charlotte officially became a certified search-and-rescue dog. She has received certification through Old Dominion K9/Sumner County EMA in Appomattox, Virginia, and Level I American Mantrailing, Police and Work Dog Association testing completed in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.

Snyder and Charlotte are listed with Lancaster County Middle Creek Search and Rescue and Central Region 49 Rescue in Northumberland County. Her participation in search and rescue is 100 percent volunteer, yet the training never stops.

All-purpose searcher

Training must remain constant to expose the dogs to different things and increase their skill levels. For instance, Snyder said a dog may do really well in a wooded area, but requires extra work due to struggling in paved areas.

Charlotte is trained to find living people, but Snyder was encouraged by multiple people in the field to cross-train her to locate human remains. Most train their dogs in one discipline, said Snyder, but expanding that depends on the dog’s work drive. She was told Charlotte would make a good all-purpose dog.

The training has to do with scents. For basic training, Snyder has containers with minimal scent coming out of the lid. Each container has different scents, with one containing human remains such as teeth. She stressed special permission is required to acquire those items.

Some dogs are motivated by toys or play, but Charlotte is food-motivated. She receives her favorite treats every time she finds what she is searching for.

Snyder has terms to help her understand the goal. “Find it” is for a living human, and “fish” is when she’s searching for human remains.

“My dog is certified for trailing and cross-trained for human remains. She can point out if there are particular dead cells from someone who passed away,” Snyder said.

Human scent, and contamination

Going on scene is more than meets the eye for even a trained dog. Environmental situations affect every search, making them all different, said Snyder.

“The more people on scene, who already potentially searched, walked or drove vehicles in an area the lost person was known to be in, that can really impact the way the dog can work,” she said. “(It can) destroy evidence if it’s a crime scene area, or an area where the person left a particular scent — spit on the ground, etc.”

Items needed for a dog to catch a lost person’s scent must also contain as little other human contamination as possible. Snyder said a pillow case or socks worn the night before are items from which dogs can typically pick up a good scent.

In the search and rescue field, Snyder said there is the potential to be working with police, but at training seminars she has worked next to anyone from the sheriff’s department to people down the street wanting to do a good deed.

110 percent commitment

Fellow search-and-rescue dog owners she encounters all have one thing in common — commitment.

“You can’t think, ‘I’m going to get a dog and this is something I want to do.’ It’s an absolute commitment,” she said. “You have to be in it 110 percent and be willing to go in with an open mind and listen to multiple people on how to train the dog, because each dog is different in the way they learn and respond to situations.”

Passion is also required, considering the volunteer status and the time and effort required. Snyder said she’s held fundraisers to help with training costs and to support rescue groups with which she’s involved.


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