Arkansas search and rescue dogs — and their handlers — answer the call
Several summers ago, Mark Fonville of North Little Rock got an alarming call. Hours earlier, his octogenarian mother, Leta Fonville, had had a disagreement with his dad. To clear her head, she’d taken off for a walk in the Ozark National Forest next to their Northwest Arkansas home. And she hadn’t returned. She was in “extremely good health,” Fonville says, but the temperature was over 100, and, thinking she’d only be gone a short time, had been wearing her house shoes and had only taken with her a Viva paper towel and her walking stick.
A little after he and his brother from Fort Worth arrived at their parents’ home that evening, Fonville says search and rescue teams “began arriving, setting up their equipment and stations all over the place in our pastures next to the forest. … We didn’t even know what groups they were all coming from, but they definitely knew what they were doing.”
Among those searchers were Kim Burnett, an accountant and highly trained, certified search and rescue volunteer from Johnson County, and her two highly trained, certified search and rescue bloodhounds. The dogs got Leta’s scent from articles in the house, and after ruling out every possible spot she could be on the property, proceeded to join the search in the mountainous, dark woods. The search lasted deep into the night.
Fonville says that at about 3 a.m. they could hear in the dark a “great cacophony of sounds” as something came crashing down the mountain beside them. “I couldn’t tell what it was at first, but then suddenly I see Kimberly holding onto a long rope for dear life and absolutely running down the mountain, through all kinds of briars and brush.”
Her dog had caught Leta’s trail. Burnett just had to keep up.
Within two hours, searchers found his mother on the other side of the mountain, intact but tired and full of stories of her misadventure, including how she used her walking stick and “her Viva” to scare away a large animal in the dark. She had gone off the trail at a spot that was blocked, but hadn’t gotten back on it in the right place. Although Leta knew the forest “like the back of her hand,” Fonville says, she’d become lost. Trying to get back, she’d wandered miles away. Thanks to the work of the search dogs and the expert ground crew who came to the rescue, she had reunited with her family by dawn.
“Those dogs were amazing,” Fonville says. “They were so focused on their job.”
Gifts of self
This sort of story is familiar to the dozens of trained search and rescue (SAR) groups in Arkansas. Many of the groups are associated with county departments of emergency management, fire departments and other first responders. One thing most people don’t realize about these dedicated people is that they’re unpaid volunteers.
“It’s true 99% of all search and rescue personnel are volunteers,” says Mikki (pronounced Micah) Hastings, the elected president of the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR), and an Arkansas search
and rescue mission coordinator. “And most are not funded at all.” Hastings, who lives in Clark County, says with the rare exception of occasional funding from an agency, or grassroots fundraising, SAR volunteers spend their own time and money on training and equipment, and travel to the searches. Most have full-time jobs, yet may take off work for unpaid days at a time when their SAR services are suddenly needed.
“Search and rescue is always a free service; it’s not like they can recoup their money,” Hastings says. “They are literally doing that work as volunteers out of the goodness of their hearts.”
K9 SAR dog handlers are also the dogs’ owners and trainers; all aspects of a search dog’s care are their responsibility. Among the Arkansas SAR dog handlers polled for this article, the consensus was that handlers spend at least $10,000 to acquire, train, maintain and certify their dog, not counting thousands in ongoing expenses for continuing training, recertification and travel each year.
In Little River County, Vynn Stuart has been working her SAR dogs for more than 30 years. She currently has a German shepherd, Gordi, and two border collies, West and Boomer. Over the span of her volunteering, she has worked every part of Arkansas and in five surrounding states.
For a while, Stuart had an employer who paid her even when she was deployed on a search, but she says that’s a rarity: “It does get expensive, but God’s always provided for me to be able to get to do this work. I’ve never gone hungry or not had a roof over my head.”
Within the SAR community, search dogs are a precious tool, Burnett says, and one not every community in the state has. That’s one of the reasons she and others founded in 2006 the Arkansas Alliance of Bloodhound Search Specialists (AABSS), a nonprofit that Burnett currently serves as president. The organization, which started with bloodhounds but now includes many breeds, responds to urgent calls for help across the entire state and beyond with their certified dogs. In 2020, AABSS alone received 69 calls for their dogs to join searches across the state.
Hastings says of SAR volunteers, “Sometimes we’re called in for a child who’s gone missing; sometimes it’s a hiker or elderly person who’s wandered away and can’t get back. You never get called in good weather or daylight. And it’s always the worst day of someone’s life. The people calling for help are worried sick about their loved ones.”
Rhonda DiBasilio volunteers as the K9 coordinator for Benton County. When she started training SAR dogs for its new K9 unit two years ago, she says one of the things that surprised her to learn was that the dogs have different roles. “I hadn’t realized that each dog has its specialty, an area they focus on in training.”
The names used vary slightly within the industry, but at the broadest, there are live-find dogs and human
remains detection (HRD) dogs. Both perform essential work.
Live-find dogs include leashed (sometimes called mantrailing) dogs that follow a specific person’s scent trail (as Burnett’s bloodhounds were doing in the search for Leta Fonville) and air-scent area search dogs that can be let loose to find a human in a wilderness area even without their specific scent, Hastings explains. Disaster dogs find people, living or deceased, in collapsed urban structures. In other parts of the world, avalanche dogs can be essential in finding people trapped under the snow within the few minutes they can still be rescued.
“Then there are evidence or article search dogs taught to look for metal, leather and plastic, even electronic devices,” DiBasilio says. “A police department could call and say, ‘Hey, we have a suspect in custody, and we think they threw a gun into this area. Can you provide a dog to help us search for evidence?’”
The HRD dogs can be used to locate the recently deceased or graves from hundreds of years ago using as little as a tooth, says Linda Myers of Logan County. Myers and her husband, Michael, both members of AABSS, are the handlers of Nexi, a golden retriever, and Whisper, a Labrador, both certified in HRD. She says as seen on true crime documentaries, Nexi and Whisper are often used by law enforcement to work cold cases — either to find a grave or to rule out areas where the long-lost victim could be.
“Dogs are a fabulous, invaluable resource for finding live people and people who aren’t anymore. They can detect things that people have no prayer of ever picking up on. Their olfactory systems are amazing,” Myers says.
Michelle Mace lives in Cabot and volunteers in the K9 Unit of the Little Rock Fire Department’s Arkansas Task Force 1, currently working with her Belgian Malinois, Kona. Mace says because of the dangerous conditions they’re called into — searching through collapsed buildings after a tornado or a fire, for instance — disaster dogs, in particular, have to be at the top of their game.
“It is very intense for the dogs,” Mace says. “The disaster scenario is probably one of the most dangerous situations you can put a dog into. There’s any number of unknown hazards that we can encounter, including total collapse. A wrong step could endanger the dog and any people trapped in there. So, a disaster-trained dog really has to be in the upper echelon of already well-trained search dogs.”
Training, training and retraining
No matter their specialization, search dogs require countless hours of professional training to be certified to work in the field safely and responsibly. Then they must be continually trained and recertified across their career to keep their skills fresh, as must their handlers.
Burnett says volunteers in SAR spend “hundreds, sometimes thousands” of hours annually in training to become experts in dog handling and rescue and survival skills like wilderness first aid, hazmat training, various rescue techniques and an endless roll of other highly technical skills.
DiBasilio says, “The K9 handler has to be trained in canine behavior and how to shape that behavior to get
the desired result.” That includes, for instance, scent theory, and the conditions that affect the scent. But they also must have the same critical search and survival skills all SAR members have. She says K9 handlers work with other SAR responders under the Incident Command System, which enables emergency response personnel to work safely together to take control of a critical incident. “Handling a dog is an additional responsibility — we learn our skills, the dog learns its skills and we must learn to work together as a team,” she says.
Handlers look for dogs — sometimes purebred puppies; sometimes rescues — that have a super-high prey drive, high energy and an intense focus on play and rewards, Hastings says. “There’s no certain breed necessary to be a search dog; any dog can if they fit the profile. But the handlers who own the dogs have to fit the profile, too.”
Burnett says AABSS holds open training so anyone interested can see the sacrifices and work the commitment to being a search dog handler entails. “It’s not for everyone, but that’s OK. They can help in other ways without being the one in the field. Everyone can contribute in some way.”
DiBasilio says her unit is making sure their training records are thorough and up to date. Records matter because the evidence that search dogs detect, and their training logs, can be admissible in court. “There’s a lot of pieces to put into play. … It’s very systematic and professional.”
Stuart says much of the work can also be intuitive. “Dogs have a trained ‘find’ response, like barking or pawing at the ground, but I tell handlers I train not to depend on that. They may signal in other ways, and the handler has to be able to interpret their meaning. A German shepherd I had was so subtle, she would just turn around and look at me, and I could tell by her eyes that she was telling me something.”
Burnett, who teaches SAR seminars around the country, says being a canine handler comes down to reading the dog’s body language. “If I’m getting a lot of interest to the right, for example, that’s radioed into Command. They will send teams and will often find evidence that person had been there, or they’ll find the person there. We’re not usually the ones who make the find, but we provide information that helps teams get to the right location.”
A nose for this work
Humans naturally give dogs plenty to work with. As Hastings explains, “The whole time we’re moving, we’re shedding skin cells. We leave thousands of pieces of physical evidence every time we walk. We can never detect that, but dogs can because their senses are so much keener.”
“After 30 years, it still never ceases to amaze me what these dogs can do,” Stuart says.
For instance, Stuart recounts a training exercise she attended in Texas. “I had never gotten to train my dog on [detecting]anything burned, but the fire department had been training an arson dog in their burn building, which was still smoking.” Another trainer agreed to come up with a scent article her dog could track. “They pointed me to a pile of white, powdery ashes. So, I let my dog smell it and told him to ‘go find,’” she says. The dog tracked the scent through the neighborhood and a city park, eventually leading them minutes later to a girl sitting on some steps behind a building.
Stuart says she “flipped out” when she found out what that pile of ash had been: a single hair off the girl’s head, that was then wrapped in a washcloth before being completely burned to ashes. Yet from that pile of ash, her dog was still able to find the hair’s owner. “Their noses are incredible,’’ she says, awe in her voice.
Caleb Landers is a dog trainer in Washington County. He and his HRD dog, Rowdy, a Belgian Malinois, help local search groups, but he’s primarily affiliated with a group out of Louisiana that serves the entire region. He’s been on searches for live subjects and deceased, but says he feels drawn toward the latter, particularly cold cases, for the unique hope a dog’s incredible nose can offer families who feel neglected.
He explains, “Live finds have a ton of resources thrown at finding the person while they are still alive — ground crews, dogs, drones, aircraft, all kinds of tools. But in older cases it’s almost impossible to find someone without using the dogs.
“Those more forgotten cases are what I really like to focus on. Being able to give that family the peace of mind that their loved one is being looked for. Even if we don’t find them, it’s giving them the peace of mind that someone out there still cares.”
Mace, who has been working with certified dogs for 23 years, says people will often bring dogs, such as
hunting dogs, that aren’t trained and certified in search skills to the searches to help. But search amateurs, no matter how well-intentioned, can hinder searches and put the mission in danger. “If you’re interested in becoming a search dog handler, please go to a credentialed team and trainer and do the work,” she urges. “Because it’s a great thing to do, but we can’t have people out there who don’t know what they’re doing and could potentially endanger other people as well as themselves.”
Landers gives another reason untrained dogs and handlers are problematic: offering families false hope. “These people who come out to help probably have good intentions, but when families see a dog show up at a rescue, nine times out of 10 they automatically have this hope that, ‘My loved one’s going to be found!’” Landers says that’s a hope untrained dogs can rarely deliver.
He says families of the missing have a right to certified dogs on their search. “I think it’s very important for the families to know they can tell law enforcement, ‘We want certified dogs. We want to see those certifications.’ No matter where you are, there are certified dog teams that will come to help you find your missing person, for no charge. … We have a pager system like fire departments have. As soon as those pages come in, if we’re able to go, we hit the road to come help.”
Hastings says, “We have places in the state that have more local search and rescue resources than others, but there’s not anywhere in Arkansas that doesn’t have coverage. Because if you need a resource and you don’t have it in your area, your emergency manager will contact the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, and they have a list of search teams and capabilities. I don’t know of a search team that will not deploy anywhere in the state. As long as the local authorities know who to call, if they need a trained K9 unit, or ground search, or pretty much any kind of technical rescue, they can get that.”
Still, Burnett urges people to be careful in the world. “Use outdoor safety. If you’re doing water activities, wear your life-vest. If you’re going hiking or camping, make sure someone knows what time you’re going and what time you’re expected back. If you’re going hiking, make sure you’re dressed appropriately for the terrain you’re going into, and take basic supplies with you,” she says. “We train and we will respond with our dogs whenever and wherever we’re needed. But we would prefer for everyone just to come home safely.”
Many of the volunteers interviewed for this article come close to choking up with emotion when asked
why they dedicate so much of their lives to this hard, unpredictable, expensive and time-consuming work. Words like “mission,” “service,” “giving to our communities,” and “helping families” crop up often. Voices crack.
“There are not enough paid personnel to take care of these emergencies,” Hastings says. “The volunteers do it because they genuinely want to help. After they’re called at 2 o’clock in the morning when it’s 30 degrees and rainy outside — after they get those calls a few times, if they’re not really in it because they want to help somebody, they’re not going to go. You have to have a passion for it.”
Though she’s worked extensively with dogs all her life, DiBasilio says her work with search dogs gives her a fulfillment she hadn’t known before.
“You show a dog in a ring, and you get some titles and certificates and think, ‘Oh, I’ve accomplished so much.’ But then I’m like, ‘Why am I not happy? Why am I not satisfied with that?’
“If I take a dog and hone in on their natural abilities and teach them to go out and find somebody, that means a lot. We provide a service. If I had somebody who was missing in my family, and there was someone out there with a dog that could help, I would be ecstatic to have that source of expertise available to me.”
For Burnett, the joy of using her bloodhounds on a successful rescue propels her. She says she’s particularly driven by the reward of helping bring lost children home. “There’s nothing like that feeling of seeing the expression on their parents’ faces when you reunite them. Nothing,” she says. “All the work is worth it for that moment.”
For more information, visit the Arkansas Search and Rescue Association (arksar.org), the National Search and Rescue Association (nasar.org) or the Arkansas Alliance of Bloodhound Search Specialists (fb.com/arkansasbloodhoundalliance).