One of the workshops I attended while at Crimebake last month was given by a member of the Maine Warden Service, an organization that has been operating for over one hundred years. Because most of Maine is rural, the Warden Service regularly relies on canines to help with search and rescue.
Some dogs track on the ground, while others are “air scent” hounds, and the situation dictates which type of dog is used. Is the search for evidence or a person? Is the person purported to be alive or dead? Is the body on land or in water? The speaker also differentiated between “pointy-eared” dogs and “round-eared” dogs. Pointy-eared dogs such as German Shepherds are prey-driven, and round-eared dogs (such as Labradors) are play driven. His preference is to work with round-eared dogs.
The dogs start training at eight-weeks of age, and can work as long as ten or twelve years. Dogs never lose their ability, but are retired when their strength wanes. About 80% of the dogs who begin training flunk out, whereas fifty percent of the handlers quit or are fired.
Care of the dogs is paramount, and vets are typically on-site during a search because of the possibility of the animal getting injured. The dogs receive water and breaks on a regular basis as they are asked to do a hard job in a difficult environment.
The speaker told many fascinating stories from his career. He performed search and rescue after Katrina and shared that because voodoo is heavily practiced in New Orleans, his dog had many false “hits” due to the countless vials of blood and jars of body parts amid the wreckage.
The job of a Warden is definitely not for the faint of heart.