A Dynamic Search & Rescue Team

When law enforcement agencies in New Hampshire and Vermont need help to locate lost or missing persons, they often call New England K9 Search & Rescue. This is a special group of all volunteer humans and their dogs that provide support to local agencies at no cost.

Jennifer Vaughan is one of the members of the team and has been involved in search and rescue for eight years. She currently has two golden retrievers. Olive is 9 years old and has been certified since 2015 and Harley is 2.5 years old and is in training to be certified.

How did you get involved with search and rescue?

I had always listened to National Public Radio and was struck and intrigued by the interviews with K9 handlers on the anniversary of 9/11. My love for being challenged, the wilderness, my K9s and providing a service to my community made search and rescue a perfect fit for me.

How did you learn to train your dogs and what training is involved for you?

As a trainee on NEK9SAR, you are given a mentor who guides you as you learn the different aspects of wilderness searching with a K9. The handler must learn navigation, weather patterns, lost person behavior, reading a K9’s body language and so much more. The K9 learns to use their nose to search for the human scent that is out-of-place in the wilderness. This is called Wilderness Air scent. Through many repetitions and much teamwork, the handler and the K9 learn many skills that will make them proficient when searching. The K9 learns to Find the human, Alert the handler when the subject is found and Refind taking the handler back to the subject (Find - Alert - Refind).

Locating the subject is made more complex by the terrain, weather, and the complexities of the wilderness. In training, we try to mimic a search scenario. The mentor instructs, observes and determines when the team is ready to start the certification process. There are several tests to be completed in different seasons, day and night, and with a long list of technical criteria to master. Handlers and K9s train most days practicing a variety of different skills. Handlers love the outdoors, are driven to succeed despite experiencing failure or frustration, and live to search with their K9s.

Both dogs are trained as air scent dogs rather than tracking dogs. What does this mean and what is the benefit of this method?

Wilderness Air scent allows the K9s to be efficient with their natural resources. They move quickly through the wilderness terrain in any weather conditions, day or night, despite elapsed time of subject’s departure and are still successful. They will naturally use ground scent. The trained Air scent K9 has an advantage over just using tracking. Air scent K9s can clear a large area quickly by using their best resource, their nose to look for human skin rafts that are being dispersed from the lost subject (skin raft = a human’s particular scent - like those illustrated by ‘Pig Pen’ in the Peanut cartoon). Those traveling skin rafts dispersing from the subject by air currents are the clues that the K9 uses in the wilderness - a mix of ground scent and air scent is what leads the K9 to the subject.

There must be a lot of trust and communication between you, your team and your personal dogs. What is communication like with you and your dog, verbal, non-verbal or a mix?

We humans on NEK9SAR share a very tight bond. We support one another fully - we have each other’s backs - there is total trust. Although we are all fairly competitive by nature - we celebrate as a team. We often are working in adverse conditions and we have to work seamlessly. Our common goal is finding the lost subject. Nothing stops us!

We have a very tight bond with our K9 partners. It is a beautiful sight to watch a K9 in scent. Their body changes providing clues to the handler. We communicate mostly in silence except for a few commands. Each team is unique - operating their own way. After 8 years of spending everyday together searching, Olive knows exactly what I am doing as I too know her body language - a small nuance in her body indicates she has scent. The K9s are so well trained - so focused, so extremely hard working and so excited when they find the subject. NEK9 has so many success stories!

Jennifer with Olive

Not only must a dog be physical and mentally fit for this type of work, but also the handlers. Handlers are covering varied terrain, in all sorts of weather and have to be able to think clearly and act quickly. How do you train for this and what fuel for yourself do you carry in your pack to ensure that you can keep searching until the mission is complete? 

We are often covering pretty rugged terrain, so we need to be in good physical shape. Olive, Harley and I hike Camel’s Hump every Monday morning. Great way to start the week. We hike other days - sometimes for fun and other times for training. Olive, Harley and I are athletes, so we train hard, eat a healthy diet and monitor our weight.

Fueling is critical on a search. Other than a PB&J, I love UnTapped products - easy to carry and a really good energy pick-me-up. We are in the wilderness for hours and hours day or night - we don’t stop until we have thoroughly covered our assigned areas, so carrying the UnTapped waffles or the straight maple syrup packets to add to water or slurp down on the go is awesome. I was introduced to UnTapped by my teammate Jessica Johnson of Rochester, VT who always has the healthiest and yummiest fuel in her pack. She knew I would love UnTapped! I just gobble it up and keep on searching.

Has there been a puppy training gone amiss? 

Like in life - we experience a mix of failures and successes. Olive has had the good fortune of having some critical finds that have led to successful endings. But one funny story at the start of her search career, was at one of our first SAR trainings when I was trying to look like I knew my stuff and that my K9 had potential. Everyone was one-by-one getting their K9s out of their cars to do an exercise. I was standing with my back to my car when a team member said, “Hey Jennifer, look at your car!” I turned and looked. My 2-year-old Olive had escaped through the sunroof and was standing on top of the car - ready to roll! Yup, I certainly impressed everyone! I soon after - purchased a good crate for my Houdini Olive.

What is Olive’s and Harley’s favorite treat or reward when it’s time to celebrate? Do they ever get to lick the syrup packet?

When our K9s have a find - they are rewarded with whatever they love and for Olive and Harley - they love food! They each have a tug toy that opens and food is hidden inside. I have used a variety of treats such as cheese, dehydrated chicken, liver and the list goes on. I have never thought to give them a lick of UnTapped - I’m sure they would love it too! I’ll give it a go!

Photo Credits: NEK9SAR