A nose for rescues

Tuesday, March 9, 2004

BLODGETT, Mo. -- At 7 1/2 months old, Sweet Willie is destined for greatness.

The black German shepherd owned by Marshia Morton is the youngest member of Scott County's recently formed search and rescue dog team. Surprisingly, he is also the most mellow.

Perhaps he knows he has a lot to live up to. Sweet Willie's father sniffs out bombs in Memphis, Tenn., for the Shelby County Sheriff's Department, where his mother is also a search and rescue dog.

The volunteer group is working alongside Scott County 911 under guidelines from the Search and Rescue Council of Missouri. The group first met in late November for orientation and hopes to be functional by midsummer, Morton said. The training regimen can take two years, but she hopes the team's accelerated schedule will pay off quicker.

"We don't have two years," she said. "That'd be a luxury."

There are no other such units in Southeast Missouri, making these dogs an incredible asset to the entire area, said Joe Burton, Scott County emergency management director. The closest search and rescue dog teams in the state are in St. Louis and Springfield.

"It's going to help with the walk-aways with nursing homes," he said. "It's going to save lives eventually, down the road."

The all-volunteer group receives no county or state funding and is looking at Homeland Security grants as a possible future resource, Burton said.

Sweet Willie spent Wednesday night developing tracking skills with his teammates inside Morton's enormous horse barns at her farm near Blodgett. The group, which has about a dozen handlers and seven dogs, meets two to three times each week. Each dog has a handler, who walks alongside and holds the leash, and a helper, who acts as a lookout for possible dangers. One dog and handler team can clear several square miles in a day.

Dog moods

At the other end of the doggy mood spectrum is Todd, an excitable 11-month-old chocolate Labrador owned by Bobby Cassout of Scott City. Todd's happy, bouncy energy announces his enthusiasm for the training.

"No," Cassout says as Todd tugs on his leash to follow another dog. "You'll get your turn. You just wait."

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Morton trained under veterinarian Dr. Rita Tinsley in Steward County, Tenn. She has search and rescue contacts across the country, some with teams that searched in New York City after the attacks. She plans to bring them to the area to give seminars.

The Scott County dogs were anxious but well-behaved during their training session. There are all sorts of smells in Morton's horse barns to distract them while they search for a "victim." Twelve-year-old Robert Cassout of Scott City hid in various stalls. When the dogs successfully tracked and found him, they received lots of praise.

In the second half of the night's training, the dogs searched for human teeth Morton hid in three locations for cadaver work.

Keno, an 18-month-old black Labrador owned by Ross and Amber Glenn of East Prairie, Mo., did well in her search for the teeth.

"She's got a lot of drive," Amber Glenn said. "She likes to play hide-and-seek. It's a game we've played with her since she was a puppy. We're just taking a different approach now."

Newcomer Bo Jangles, a 2 1/2-year-old bloodhound, sat at his master's feet pleading in a high-pitched whine to be allowed to sniff out something, anything. It's what he was born to do.

Every so often, owner Terry Pemberton of Sikeston, Mo., scolded Bo Jangles in a low whisper, after which the hound momentarily quieted before launching into a new series of nasal sounds.

Time and dedication

A lot of training is required of the human members of the dog teams, too, including first aid and CPR certifications, radio operations, hazardous chemicals, maps and crime scene preservation. Handlers also learn about the dangers their dogs face, such as drug makers' booby traps, lethal meth labs and desperate jail escapees.

The organization is open to people who have dogs and to those who just wish to help and don't have dogs, Burton said.

"But they've got to be dedicated because it requires a lot of time," he said. "It's not like a volunteer fireman where you train and get your certification and then basically wait for the fire calls. These dogs live with you, and you train them and work with them every day. You've got to really want to do this to be a part of it."

mwells@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160


WANT TO HELP?

The Scott County search and rescue dog team needs donations for equipment and training. To help, call Marshia Morton at (573) 481-9208.

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