Dogs on special mission | News

Wading knee deep in the swamps near Slidell, James “Trey” Todd and his K-9 partner were on high alert for any signs of movement.

While their mission was to locate the remains of a local man, they were also keeping an eye on the 500-pound beast that had bitten him.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, man Timothy Satterlee was attacked by an alligator outside his house. Then Satterlee and the alligator both disappeared.

Todd was one of many members of the Louisiana Search and Rescue Dog Team called in to search for Satterlee. Todd and his yellow Labrador named Messi Rue roamed the alligator-infested swamps for days, fully aware of the dangers lurking just below the surface.

“I was scared to death,” Todd said.

In this case, wildlife officials found the 12-foot alligator before the dogs in the corpse could, and DNA showed Satterlee’s remains were in his stomach. But just three weeks later, Todd and Messi Rue were at the forefront of a search for a missing woman.

Leslie Ann Smith had abandoned her car by the side of the road a month earlier in Lamar County, Mississippi. MPs searched for her in the adjacent woods, but the dog team found her scattered remains, along with a gun that suggested suicide, about half a mile from the original search perimeter.

Members of the search and rescue team, known as LaSAR, have deployed their dogs in more than 600 searches across the country since Lisa Higgins and her daughter Troi-Marie founded the group in St. Tammany in 1991.

Working with the FBI and local police departments, the team has helped solve dozens of criminal investigations by searching for dead bodies. He has also rescued missing Alzheimer’s disease patients and found runaway adolescents.

As a non-profit organization, the 11 team members are all volunteers. Todd is an orthopedic surgeon and Higgins has held positions ranging from a law enforcement reservist to a K-9 contractor for the FBI. But they all spend many hours training their dogs to rescue missing people and recover human remains.

“So you’re not doing it for monetary gain for whatever reason, strictly that you’re doing the best job you can and trying to bring them home for the family,” Higgins said.

The dog team traveled as far north as Anchorage, Alaska, and as far south as Puerto Rico. Some of the dogs were able to locate bodies submerged under 129 feet of water and graves used by the Chakchiuma tribe in the late 17th century.

In one of the team’s biggest moves, Higgins and his dog Dixie searched a ranch in Colorado looking for a man after several attempts at other cadaver dogs were unsuccessful in 2017.

Dixie pointed to a section of the corral filled with dead farm animals and dung, where the human remains were found under several feet of trash. His body had been wrapped in plastic and buried next to a 55 gallon barrel of dead animals.

This was a unique research because the mixed smells of the decaying animals could have confused the dogs.

Researchers at the LSU Cold Case Project are investigating information on the whereabouts of the remains of Joseph Edwards, a young black man who was killed in 1964 in the parish of Concordia. Higgins said dogs might be able to help with this research even though so many decades have passed.

Dogs use their heightened sense of smell to track down natural odors emitted by a decaying body. If properly trained, they are able to detect human remains from miles away with an accuracy that makes modern technology more humble.

When a dog locates the suspicious area of ​​the remains, it uses something Higgins describes as a trained final response. These responses, such as sitting down or barking, are passive indicators meant to alert the manager without damaging a potential grave.

Dogs train in various types of human remains detection, ranging from land and water to disasters and urban abilities.

“Because you never know where you’re going to have to look, we try to avail ourselves of training in all types,” Higgins said.

Just as dogs are trained, so are owners. Higgins and his teammates train to look for changes in each dog’s behavior when they detect a scent. It takes a keen eye and a deeper relationship with the dog to notice the subtle indicators.

And while it may seem like only certain breeds of dog are capable of such feats, Kirsten Watson, LaSAR member and former Animal Control Officer, points out the intangible qualities that a dog possesses.

“Any dog ​​can do it, but they have to have the drive,” Watson said.

Watson’s German Shepherd Quest has that motivation, and it was evident this fall during one of the team’s regular Saturday practice sessions at the New Orleans Fire Training Academy. Eager to start, Quest practically dragged Watson onto the field, where pieces of human heart and placenta had been hidden.

His exuberant energy was instantly slain once Watson let go. His instincts kicked into high gear as he crept through the field, nose to the ground, sniffing the leftovers.

Watson noticed the moment Quest’s ears pricked up. He had found the smell.

In a blur of black and brown, Quest streaked through the tall marsh grass towards the source of the scent. Spotting the pot of hearts hidden under a tree branch, Quest stopped dead and sat quietly, as if he had been trained to do so all his life.

In most salvage research, the body is not visible, so handlers have to trust their dogs’ ability to sniff out the remains.

During their first search in May 1991, the LaSAR team were called in by the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office to search for the body of a missing boy after currents in the Amite River swept him away. under water.

Suspended from the bow of a police boat, Higgins’ golden Labrador Frosty sniffed the slippery waters of the river until he complained to Higgins, indicating he had located the body.

Frosty found the boy within the first four minutes of the search, and after 10 hours of searching, the boy’s body was found. He had been buried under four feet of water and three feet of sand.

The team has since found a four-year-old boy under a Mississippi River dock and the body of another boy who had jumped from a barge into the river.

The search for missing people and human remains can be a difficult process that sometimes has an emotional impact. Before every search, Higgins always remembers what she was called to do.

“I don’t care so much about what I might see,” Higgins said. “I’m afraid I’m doing a good job working the dog while we are training and the dog is doing his job while he’s been trained.”

The canine team is very united and shares each other’s achievements. Anytime a dog successfully detects a source and uses the correct final answer, the entire team is sure to shower the dog with some much-needed praise and head scratchings.

While positive reinforcement helps the team be successful, trust is crucial. Higgins describes it as the most important aspect of the job, especially since venturing into unfamiliar territory with just a dog’s nose as a guide could make anyone doubt.

She likes to wear a neon orange shirt with black letters inside out that read: “TRUST YOUR DOG”.

“If you can do your due diligence and this dog knows his job, then when your dog kicks in you have to stand behind him,” Higgins said. “That’s why we do it, that’s why we work so hard.”

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