Dogs sniff out human remains on Niwot trails
January 29, 2020
If you were walking the Niwot Loop Trail last Tuesday afternoon, you likely bumped into Kodi and his owner Jayne Zmijewski.
Kodi may have looked like any other yellow lab, but he wasn't out for leisure; he was helping facilitate a training mission. His title--Search and Rescue Dog.
"They're like family dogs," explained Zmijewski, "but when there's a mission, they know they have a job to do."
Zmijewski retired from a long career teaching P.E. at Longmont Junior High School (nka Sunset Middle). Now, she is part of a team of dedicated search and rescue volunteers who are on call 24/7, 365 days a year. "We are part of the emergency services department, with all their regulations and rules and uniforms, but we're not paid."
Zmijewski also belongs to Search and Rescue Dogs of the United States, an organization currently headed up by Jeff Hiebert, a ranger for Boulder County Parks and Open Space. The Niwot trails are one of twenty locations this group uses to train dogs for the diverse situations they will encounter in real life.
Dogs have many powerful tools, including endurance, patience, and an incredible sense of smell, which can pick up scents over two miles away. "Dogs are an added advantage to a search and rescue team," said Zmijewski. "One dog can cover an area that it takes 16 foot teams to cover."
Most dogs are trained in three investigative capacities---trailing, air scent, and human remains. Trailing and air scent allow dogs to track people who are still alive using scents deposited on the ground or in the air. The subjects are often lost hikers, wandering toddlers, or people with Alzheimers. When someone passes away, the scent of their body slowly changes, so sniffing out human remains is a whole other business.
It was human remains training that was underway on the Niwot Loop Trail on January 22nd. Samples of human remains were planted strategically along the creek bed for the dogs to sniff out. Though Kodi and a couple of bloodhounds were just practicing, there were two young dogs actively learning to track.
Dogs have to learn to screen out distractions like rabbits and squirrels. And owners learn to recognize their dog's cue for when they find what they are looking for. "He will come back and take me to the subject," Zmijewski said of Kodi, "coming back and forth until I get there."
Zmijewski reinforces the find by rewarding Kodi with a toy. Many people use treats as a reward, but she prefers not to. "I don't want him thinking about a hot dog he smells at a campfire a half mile away when there's a toddler missing."
Not all dogs like search and rescue missions. But American Labradors are particularly well suited to the task. Bred as hunting dogs, they have a good sense of smell and enjoy the chase. "It's a game for them," said Zmijewski. Kodi is the fourth labrador Zmijewski has worked with.
It usually takes at least a year of intense daily training to certify a dog for search and rescue. Training the dogs is easy, but training the owners to train the dogs is much more difficult.
Which is why Zmijewski was quick to put out the call for volunteers. This volunteer-staffed organization provides invaluable services for the community. And there are ways to get involved that don't require owning a dog.
"We're always looking for fresh bodies to look for," said Zmijewski. Volunteers provide an article of clothing--a hat, a sock, or a scarf--for dogs in training to sniff. Volunteers then "hide" or hit the trails, and the dog is put on the chase. The dog gets practice finding the volunteer, and the volunteer gets to have a nice hike.
Though Zmijewski works with Larimer County Search and Rescue, Front Range Rescue Dogs is a similar organization based in Boulder: https://www.frontrangerescuedogs.org/. For more information, you can also visit: http://www.sardogsus.org/.