Dogs Learn to Save Lives

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Dave Holcomb lay in the snow, isolated and hidden behind bushes and fallen branches.

A golden retriever searched the area, wandering back and forth until she moved downwind from Holcomb. Then she perked up, weeding through the brush to find him before alerting Angie, her handler.

"You saved me!" Holcomb said, as his rescuer enjoyed a treat. "Good girl!"

Holcomb's savior is one of several dogs running through "problems" set up by the 55 volunteers of the Michigan Search and Rescue. The goal: certifying the dogs so they can find their targets consistently and without distraction.

"They think it's fun," said Diana Mackintosh, a handler who joined the group in July. "It's just going out to the woods or the forest and they're having a good time, but it's actually work for them."

Any dog, provided it meets the height requirement, can work for MISAR. Every member of the free search and rescue service is a volunteer. Many hold other day jobs.

"It is a really tight-knit group and that's what I really like about it," said Kate Amman, a handler who joined last spring because she already loved being outdoors and wanted to spend more time with her dog. "These animals are completely amazing to work with and train with."

The dogs can be trained to do multiple things, Holcomb said. They can work as air scent or wilderness dogs -- searching for the scent of any live or recently deceased human. They can also work as remains detection dogs for those who have been buried. Still others can work as scent-specific trailing dogs, which can lock in to a specific scent and track it.

It takes a year or two to get a dog to certification level, Holcomb said.

"As a handler it's very special to see your dog progress and actually see what they're capable of doing," said Mackintosh.

The group, whose members live all over the state, trains every week. Every third Saturday, MISAR holds a major training in a different area.

And though the dogs are rewarded for their efforts, the handlers say the service is a reward for them too.

Holcomb remembers the first time he could tell a mother a dog had helped find her children.

"The look I saw on this woman's face at that time, I can't really describe it," he said. "When you think you have lost all your children and now some people have come out and given them back to you, that was very special.

"That kind of got me hooked. And I want to do this forever."

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