Tonto Rim Search and Rescue volunteer Greg Reed and tracking dog Ringo walk through Manzanita and low grasses just outside the Payson Airport.
A man is lost and hasn’t been seen in more than an hour.
Behind them, half a dozen TRSAR volunteers scour the ground for any sign of footprints, every so often pointing to a print — Ringo is on the right track they agree nervously.
Ringo lifts his head and bounds off in a new direction. Seconds later he stops. The trail has gone cold.
Only a few months ago, a 4-year-old boy went missing around this area. It took nearly a day, the work of hundreds of community members and several volunteers on horseback to eventually find the boy safe in a remote canyon.
Luckily on this day, the man missing is TRSAR member Jim McMillion who is purposely lost. For the past few months, TRSAR has been training their newest member of the rescue squad, Ringo, an Australian shepherd, hound and Labrador mix pup.
Six-month-old Ringo was donated by the Humane Society of Central Arizona and is the first service dog to come from the local shelter.
Back on the trail, Ringo continues sniffing out McMillion, who could be located anywhere. No one in the group knows what direction McMillion took; the only clue is his hat, which was left near his vehicle.
Using the scent from the cap, Ringo searches the ground and air for McMillion’s scent trail.
Unlike humans, who have a limited sense of smell, dogs can sniff out just about anything. For years, they have been used to search for drugs, avalanche victims, earthquake survivors and lost children and adults.
“The dogs’ ultra-sensitive hearing, night vision, endurance and keen sense of smell have continually proven to be invaluable in the effort to locate missing persons,” said Lauren Paterson, Ringo’s trainer.
Dogs can discriminate odors at concentrations nearly 100 million times lower than humans using their large olfactory bulb.
“A search dog’s success stems from the fact that every human being has a smell — not detectable by human beings, but discernible by animals — which is caused by the constant stream of skin rafts and bacteria shed from the human body,” she said.
Ringo stayed with McMillion’s scent stream, bobbing left through the brush and then right. At points, Ringo stops, looks at his handler who shows Ringo the hat once again. With another sniff, he is off.
Within 10 minutes, Ringo finds McMillion sitting underneath a Manzanita, nearly a mile from his vehicle.
It would have taken searchers at least an hour to find McMillion.
Volunteers praise Ringo for his work, petting him and giving him treats. Ringo goes from person to person in the group with a look of satisfaction.
With McMillion found, we learn another volunteer is “lost.”
Reed hands Ringo’s leash over to Susan Starr, another TRSAR volunteer, handler and Ringo’s official owner.
Five handlers take turns training with Ringo so in the case of a real emergency, someone is always available.
“(Ringo) is slow and methodical and when worked with a skilled handler they become a team that successfully finds lost victims,” Paterson said.
As Ringo begins sniffing out handler Ted Lucas, Paterson trails behind, letting the handlers work. She gives them little instruction, because most have been training for more than two months with Ringo. Every week, the group goes out and does anther mock search.
Each time, they get more difficult.
At first, Ringo only had to smell a footprint to get a treat. Eventually, Ringo associated a track with a treat. Volunteers then hid short distances from Ringo, leaving a clear scent trail by digging their feet in the ground or grass. With each advancement, Ringo seemed to increasingly enjoy training.
Eventually, Ringo will track over longer distances, but it should be at least six more months until he is ready to go out on a real search and rescue.
“I think Ringo and hopefully more dogs like him and their handlers who have been fully trained to track an air scent will be a great asset to TRSAR,” said Reed.
“They will be a huge help with one of the most challenging and important functions that TRSAR performs — searching for and finding lost children and adults. I think search dog teams will greatly improve our success rate in finding lost people and doing it in a timely manner. After all, the quicker we find someone the better chance of finding them alive and in good health.”
Every year, TRSAR responds to at least one missing person case. Usually the person is found alive and well. Unfortunately, last winter, a man died after taking his red ATV through the snow. His body was not found until the snow melted.
Investigators do not know how the man got so turned around, eventually ending up near Chevelon Canyon Lake. This is a clear incident where a dog could have been used to search for the man.
When Starr joined TRSAR in April, she learned from Gila County Sheriff’s Undersheriff Adam Shepherd in academy that dogs were the more effective way to track lost and missing people.
“First on the list was dogs, followed by searchers on foot, searchers on horseback, searchers on ATVs and finally, helicopters. I knew we had access to most everything on the list, but why didn’t we have a dog?” Starr said.
Starr asked TRSAR Commander Bill Pitterle about a dog. He said they had never had one because no one wanted to own it.
“I contemplated this for awhile. I am a certified veterinary technician who works for Star Valley Veterinary Clinic. I have two dogs of my own, but I thought I could be the one responsible for a SAR dog, mostly because of my resources. So I proposed to the TRSAR board that I own the dog,” she said.
The board agreed they needed a dog and Starr contacted local dog trainer Lori Chandler for advice.
“She told me she doesn’t train SAR dogs, but recommended a trainer in Payson, Lauren Paterson. I contacted Lauren, explained my goals and parameters and we started from there,” Starr said.
Paterson said when she first moved to Payson in April 2009, she was shocked to see search and rescue did not have a dog.
When Starr approached her, she was ecstatic to begin working on a dog. Starr and Paterson when to the Humane Society and picked Ringo out of a litter of seven pups.
“I evaluated the litter and came to the conclusion that Ringo would be the star,” Paterson said.
The hardest part of training Paterson said is training the handlers.
“We are harder to train than the dog,” said Lucas.
With humans, there are so many variables and every handler is different. The most important thing is the handler learning to read Ringo’s cues and keeping him on track.
“Everything we are presenting and feeling, the dog knows,” Paterson said.
As Ringo guides Starr through the brush, smelling out Lucas, everyone on the team stands back in awe. Within a few minutes, he is found.
It is only a matter of time before Ringo is leading a big search, his nose the possible difference between life and death.
“We all joined to find people, especially children and this is a really important tool to do that,” Reed said.
So far, Ringo’s record of accomplishment is nearly perfect, a sure sign he was the right pup to pick.
For more information about TRSAR, visit www.trsar.org. All of Ringo’s training is being funded by donations.