BLOOMINGTON — Some dogs will do anything for their favorite toy.
That includes searching for a missing person, when properly trained.
Volunteer members of the McLean County Emergency Management Agency’s K-9 Search and Rescue Team work extensively to train their dogs to find the scent of a missing person or human remains. The animals, who recently demonstrated their skills to Pantagraph journalists, are deployed to find lost children, overdue hikers and hunters, people with Alzheimer’s or dementia, disaster and drowning victims, and human remains in water, underground or at crime scenes.
Rob Glinka serves as the team sergeant. He said most of their search dogs are pets during the day, but they still respond to the call when needed.
Keeping prepared for deployment is more than just a walk through the park. Glinka and the eight other handlers condition the dogs for searches on a day-to-day basis, and it changes their whole household dynamics.
That means K-9 Kona, his 5-year-old German shepherd certified for trailing searches, doesn’t get to be a couch-lounger. She needs to be crated when Glinka goes in to work at State Farm, and separated from his pet dog that doesn’t work searches.
“We don’t want a dog’s reward to be playing with other dogs,” he said. Instead, positive reinforcement should come from their handler or a person being rescued.
Since the pandemic started, Glinka has been able to take advantage of more work-from-home days. That makes it easier to take the dogs out for a long walk, and run a quick search exercise.
The search team sergeant said they don’t care what kind of breed the dog is. His first search dog was rescued from a shelter, but he added the right traits can be hard to find outside of breeders.
What they look for in a potential K-9 searcher is a healthy dog with a strong drive to work and an ability to resist surprises in the field, which range from people to farm animals, wildlife and more.
“You’re not going to see a Chihuahua be able to run a 40-acre field,” Glinka said, adding a 150-pound Newfoundland isn’t built for the job either.
He said a promising candidate would be a medium-sized dog between 30 and 80 pounds. And, of course, they have to be friendly. They’ll be working with strangers and crowds.
Once a search exercise is complete, it’s playtime for the dogs. Tennis balls are a team favorite.
Support provided by the team is vital to the operations of the Bloomington Police Department, said Public Affairs Officer John Fermon. He said they bring in experience and an asset BPD doesn’t have, noting the department’s K-9s are specialized in certain areas.
Fermon said they’re thankful for those resources.
Shane Hackman, assistant chief of the Normal Police Department, said the department has not called in the county K-9 team much, but the resource is important to have around.
The volunteers on the K-9 team come from all backgrounds of life, Glinka said, including firefighters, probation officers and private sector workers. They get assistance for veterinary costs from the nonprofit Emergency Management Association of McLean County, but handlers still cover as much as $5,000 in annual expenses.
Glinka said the volunteers buy the dogs, feed them and acquire most of their equipment. There are also travel expenses and seminars to attend.
Kathy Yelton handles K-9 Elly, a 3-year-old golden retriever certified for area searches. She said she recently went out to an Ohio seminar to continue Elly’s training for human remains searches.
She said Elly “loves the water, and she loves to hunt for stinky stuff, because when she was a puppy, we basically imprinted her on (human remains).”
Yelton explained that was done by lining up three tubes with human remains, hot dogs or tennis balls on the inside. Elly was only rewarded when she sat down for the tube with remains in it and resisted the distractions, she said.
Materials used for training are sourced from bodies donated to science. Yelton said they get the remains after researchers are finished with their work.
Search team member Joan Brehm said she started McLean County’s K-9 search team. Her first dog was certified for avalanche rescue and area search, while she lived in Montana in 1997.
In 2003, she took a job at Illinois State University, where she is a professor and department chair of sociology. Brehm said she was previously on a standalone search and rescue team called Illinois Search Dogs, a separate nonprofit that often responded as mutual aid for McLean County.
“As time went on, it just became harder to support the standalone,” she said.
The group merged with the McLean County EMA in 2010. Brehm said the ground search and rescue team was already well established.
She now handles K-9 Jessie, certified for human remains detection, and is looking for a second dog to start training.
Glinka said they have seven certified K-9s, with another four in training. They’re certified by third parties, like the International Police Work Dog Association or the National Search Dog Alliance, to remove biases, he said.
On average, he said the dogs put in an eight-year career with the team, but they do have a 10-year-old German shepherd that’s kept up on certifications: K-9 Kuster, handled by Matt Noar.
“He’s a lot more efficient with his searches than he used to be,” Glinka said.
He added the team is looking to expand their ranks and become more available to respond. Their calls have taken K-9s to combing debris from tornadoes in Washington, Illinois and Joplin, Missouri.
Brehm said her colleagues picked up her classes for a week when she was in Joplin after an EF-5 tornado devastated the area in 2011. It was one of the roughest calls she’s ever been on.
“It was like a moonscape,” Brehm said. “I’ve never seen anything like that. It just wiped everything completely off the face of the earth.”
Hot on the scent
When Kona was first certified, the testers didn’t hold back. Glinka said their search suspect waded down a creek to try to mess with them.
“She worked through it really great,” he said of his K-9’s exam.
Trailing K-9s work with a unique scent article that could come from a garment of clothing, he said. They’re kept on a close leash and their handlers need to be laser-focused on their behavior.
“I have literally walked into tree branches because I’m so focused on my dog and the mission,” said Glinka. That’s why they try to deploy with at least one extra person, and more if possible to help avoid hazards.
Before they start a search, K-9 handlers allow their dogs a moment to go to the bathroom and get acclimated to their surroundings. It’s part of their routine.
When Kona’s on the trail, her nose stays close to the ground and the tension of her leash tells Glinka what she smells.
“If I feel the tension loosen up, and then her head pops up and she starts looking around, that tells you that maybe she’s drifted off the trail,” he said. And if Kona pulls hard, that means the scent is strong or she’s getting close to the subject.
When Yelton takes K-9 Elly for an area search, she lets her dog off the leash to zoom away. Her goal is to find anyone out in the open, like a missing hunter or hiker, and then start barking.
If Yelton needs Elly to scan an area she’s not in, the handler will begin walking that way and the K-9 will follow.
If the K-9’s behavior changes, Glinka said, that could indicate something is happening. For instance, perking up and heading in a defined direction may signal that the dog picked up a scent.
Glinka said handlers keep notes on how their dogs act. They also use GPS tracking collars to help coordinate searches and assist police.
Priority No. 1 for Glinka is helping the community. Playing with the dogs comes second, he said.
But when asked to help participate in an exercise and act as a “missing person,” Yelton said it’s hard to say no to spending a day at a park with some dogs.
After a few sessions, she said, search work started to rub off on her. She and Brehm both got started the same way. The two had done private behavioral training for dogs for several years.
For those interested in joining, Glinka said the first step is to show up and shadow an exercise. After that, they’ll complete a basic land navigation class and search management courses, just like the ground search and rescue team.
From day one, the process can take two and a half years. But to McLean County’s dedicated search handlers, the effort is worth it.
“It’s really just the love of the dog and helping the community that brings us all together,” said Glinka.
Photos: K-9 trains with MABAS rescue group on Evergreen Lake
Here boy, fetch