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Canines aid in water searches

Sharolyn Sievert arrived from Garfield with Ariel to demonstrate a dog's ability to locate a submerged body. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

The Lakes Area Dive Team and area law enforcement officials gathered at the 11th Crow Wing Lake pier in Akeley to view what's likely to become an additional component in search missions when a drowning has occurred.


Canines are an integral player in ground searches, explained Hubbard County Sheriff Frank Homer, but not for cadavers in a body of water.

But after Thursday night's joint training exercise with Central Lakes Search and Rescue and the Lakes Area Dive Team - serving Hubbard, Cass and Beltrami counties - that's likely to change.

Members of the Central Lakes SAR team arrived to demonstrate how trained search dogs are able to detect scent from submerged drowning victims.

Divers were sent down with scent aids for the dogs to use in locating "bodies" at the bottom of the lake.

Human scent is composed of numerous chemicals, some produced by the body and others applied to the body and clothing in the form of hygiene products - soap, deodorant, shampoo and laundry detergent among them.

Many hygiene products are water soluble, but numerous body-produced chemicals are not. Volatile oils and other substances that do not dissolve are, in fact, lighter than water. When these molecules are released into the water, they float to the surface.

Upon contact with the air,

"dissolve" as gaseous vapor that's carried on the wind to the dog's nose. The dog is detecting the point at which the scent has risen to the water's surface, rather than the underwater source.

That's when the human steps in, to apply search knowledge to the variables to help determine where the source of scent is under water.

Dogs are not a substitute for other methods - such as visual searches from shore or via planes or draglines, underwater sonar and divers; they are a complementary resource.

Water search dogs are not a new phenomenon, but up until a few years ago, a water dog would have to be called in from the Twin Cities, Homer said.

Now, trainer numbers are growing in the northern tier of the state, including Sharolyn Sievert who arrived from Garfield with Ariel, a German shepherd, and Gus, a mixed breed, both ready for the mission.

Ariel headed out on the choppy waters of 11th Crow Wing Thursday with his nose in the air.

Before long, his teeth were chattering. Sievert explained this is due to intense breathing after catching the scent. When the chattering begins, Sievert knows the location has been found.

Most drowning victims, if not recovered soon after death, will submerge for a period of time before resurfacing. A number of factors affect the length of time the body is submerged, water temperature a primary influence.

Water depth, a puncture to the abdominal area, underwater structures that may snag the body and thermal layering in deeper lakes that occurs in the summer influence the process.

In searches involving large bodies of water or swift moving rivers, dogs can be used to eliminate large segments of the search area.

Using dogs to aid in the placement of divers can reduce the need for dives in risky terrain, reduce dive time and speed recovery of the body.

The ideal boat for search dogs is a non-slip deck, and low to the water so the dog can check scent lingering at the water surface.

And to that end, the Hubbard County Sheriff's Department is considering donating a Jon boat to Central Lakes SAR.

"It will work for both of us," Homer said.

Deb Plumley, Nevis, is among the members of the SAR team, her year-old German shepherd, Scout, in training for ground search trailing. He is soon to be introduced to human remains detection.

Water searches are tragedies and the final outcome is never joyous, the Central Lakes SAR points out. But the faster the situation can be resolved by locating the body, the easier it will be for friends and family of the drowning victim.