Nancy Hachmeister moves back and forth in front of Denali, a 6-month-old German shepherd, as he paws the ground trying to peer around her. A black hat sits in the dirt near the McGuire Pit in South Willard as April Wood hides out of sight from Denali in a thick area of brush. Todd Barry, Denali’s handler, holds the neon orange synthetic leash in both hands as Hachmeister steps back and Denali lurches forward for a quick sniff of Wood’s black hat and then Denali leaps forward on the trail following Wood’s scent.
“It’s funny, the dog learns faster than you,” Barry said, after a few training rounds of tracking. “You are always trying to keep up with the dog.”
Barry and Denali have been attending the weekend meetings of the Utah Search Dogs for the last four months. Barry found that his passion for tracking and navigating the wilderness and his love for dogs were a perfect blend in the volunteer group.
Utah Search Dogs is a nonprofit, incorporated in 2008, that offers trained canine search and rescue operations to locate lost and missing persons. The group aims to assist law enforcement agencies and other organizations that may need help with searches.
“We spend our own time and resources and money, the only thing the donations go towards is providing radios, GPS, and transceivers for the team, and we are growing, so we need more of that equipment for the teams,” Hachmeister, a Bountiful resident, said.
“The big thing is that we’re available and that we’re committed to being available 24 hours a day,” Larry Kramer, a board member of Utah Search Dogs and a Pleasant View resident, said. The teams for Utah Search Dogs are made up of a handler and their dog. The teams train together on weekends with the group in various locations, which allow for practicing urban and rural searches. During a weekend training, the teams may be working on tracking a recent scent, conducting a large area search or working on finding human remains.
Barry, an Eagle Mountain resident, views this time investment as well worth it. “You know it is going to be an hour or hour and a half ride every Saturday or Sunday morning, longer if we go up to Logan, but I’m like, completely worth it,” he said.
Barry and the other handlers understand the importance of being well-trained.
“An untrained dog can really be a disservice, because they are just going to go out and mask the trail and give false hope,” Barry said, “I think that is one of the reasons why this team takes it so serious, because that when they show up, they want show how good their dogs are and how quick they can get things done.”
Hachmeister, a board member for the group, agrees, “This is serious business.”
The team is committed to not putting a team in a situation that the handler and the dog are not prepared for. For individuals that are interested in becoming members of the group, there are steps to becoming a part of the team. “We need first aid, CPR, six months of being with the group training and to see if you are going to be a good fit,” Hachmeister said.
The training goes beyond just the weekend sessions. “You go home, do your homework, do your studying, and listen, listen to all the tips,” Barry said.
The tips are coming from handlers with years of experience in training dogs or in search and rescue.
“It really is kind of a mentoring program. People have been doing it longer than others and they mentor the younger handler,” Jayson Harames, the current president of Utah Search Dogs and a Willard resident, said.
This training is often more for the handlers than the dogs. “The dogs have it, you just have to get them in the right place,” Kramer said. “The ability to just know that knowledge and figure out where to be is important.”
Hachmeister, who was a founder of the group, is pleased with the people that are on the team. “We have a really good bunch of people,” she said. “You know we have our differences, just like any family, but for the most part, we are all here to help each other, you know, do the same job.”
Barry remembers the first time he came to a training and got out of his vehicle with Denali. “The whole community just surrounds you,” he said, “it already felt like home.”
Kramer, who has been involved with search and rescue teams since 2006, has seen a shift in the searches that the teams are going out on. There has been a decrease in search frequency with less calls for searches and there has been an increase in human remains detection. “Before you would get lost, if you were smart enough to carry a compass, you had some direction. Now, you have a GPS in your pocket,” Kramer said.
“The average outdoor person is better prepared just because of electronics,” Harames said. “They are not getting in trouble as often as they used to, but now when we are called out, it is more often a recovery and something really went wrong.”
Harames estimates that he and his dog, Mozzie, have participated in a dozen searches in the past five years and Mozzie has had two finds, one live and one deceased.
Even with the training and the years of experience, Hachmeister explains that a search and rescue dog is “not a cure-all,” and the teams are resource for the public and for law enforcement agencies.
“We by and large work with law enforcement agencies, sheriff’s departments, they will call us out as a resource,” Harames said. The team is open to individuals requesting teams, but checks with law enforcement for approval to participate in the search.
Even though the team is courteous of law enforcement, the members realize the importance of time when conducting searches. “The quicker we are called out, the quicker, hopefully, we can even find a track for the person,” Hachmeister said.
As time passes, tracking can become tougher. “If they call on the dogs sooner, they can help sooner,” Harames said. “It’s better to get a dog there early and not need them, then get a dog their late and have all the area contaminated.”
The searches are an opportunity for the team members to give back to those who need the assistance. “To use a passion like that, to actually save a life or give closure to a family, you couldn’t ask for a better blessing,” Barry said.
“We’re all in it for the same reason — finding the missing person,” Hachmeister said.