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©2001 Ohio Valley Search and Rescue Dog Association

Being trained to help others 
Dogs are put through paces for day when theyíre called 
By JOHN MARTIN, Courier & Press staff writer
(812) 464-7594 or
BOB GWALTNEY / Courier & Press
Linda Dillbeck rewards Jenny, her search and rescue dog, with the dogís favorite toy, a tennis ball on a rope, after the dog found Melissa Cox in an enclosed box. Itís called a "bark box," and the dogs are trained to bark at the box when they locate the subject. It is one of several training exercises the Ohio Valley Search and Rescue Dog Association was using Saturday. A chance to play with a favorite toy is the only motivation needed for the dogs.

Jenny is a 5-year-old chocolate Labrador with piercing eyes and a rich, Hershey bar-colored coat. 

Sheís a stout, cheerful dog who nuzzles her wet nose against anyone reaching out a hand. 

Thatís Jenny on the outside. But behind her happy demeanor lies a serious skill that families rely on in times of their greatest need. 

As a member of the Ohio Valley Search and Rescue Dog Association, Jenny can be called on 24 hours a day, seven days a week to help authorities find a missing child, Alzheimerís disease patient or murder victim. 

Each situation Jenny responds to is different, but a common thread links them all. Every time she and other Ohio Valley search dogs are summoned, authorities and families have the same goal: Closure. 

For search dog owners, success is not always cause for celebration. But any resolution ó even a sad one ó beats no resolution. 

The families of missing people want answers. Owners of Ohio Valley search dogs want badly to provide them. 

When they canít, it hurts. 

"The hardest ones are when we canít bring closure for the families" of missing people, said Linda Dillbeck, who owns Jenny. "You always wonder, ĎWhere are they?í" 

In the past year, Ohio Valley search dogs have looked, without success, for an abducted Indiana University student and a missing girl in Owensboro, Ky. 

Other cases bring better results. 

Two weeks ago, Dillbeck and Jenny were called to Mayfield, Ky. They helped police search for a body that 30 days earlier had been heaved over the side of a highway bridge by an assailant. Jenny is among the Ohio Valley search dogs trained in both live body searches and cadaver searches. 

When a homicide is involved, a search dogís mission is to help police exhaust all leads and find the most critical of evidence. 

"When you donít have a body," Dillbeck said, "itís hard to build a case." 

Authorities knew the general area of the Mayfield victimís remains but were still unable to find him. 

One of the accused killers told police about what he did with the victimís body, but he did not know the exact names of roads or creeks. 

ĎHad good leadsí 

In any search, "some leads are good and some are bad," Dillbeck said. "This one had good leads." 

After 25 minutes into her search, Jenny was swimming in Clarks River near Mayfield. She reacted to something she smelled in the water. Police followed Jennyís reaction, and found that she had hit the jackpot. 

The victimís body was half-submerged in the river, floating between two tree stumps. 

Jenny had succeeded. And as always when a search dog finds the target, she gets a prize ó a tennis ball on a rope, in Jennyís case. 

But this was one of those times when success was bittersweet. 

"He was so young," Dillbeck said of the homicide victim. "This was such a tragedy." 

Must want to help 

Dillbeck and fellow search and rescue dog association member Marti Vanada say what they do isnít for everyone. 

Being a dog lover and enjoying the outdoors isnít enough. Being compassionate isnít enough. 

Search dog trainers must have all of those qualities in abundance. 

"The most important thing is the want to help somebody," said Vanada, who owns Polly, who is half border collie and half golden retriever. 

Ohio Valley search dog owners are volunteers and calls for service can come at any hour. 

"Middle of the night, jumpers off bridges, doesnít matter," Dillbeck said. "You get up and go." 

Vanada said that whenever a call comes, "We have somebody on the road in 15 minutes." 

The Ohio Valley Search and Rescue Dog Association is 10 years old. Vanada said her son saw a sign-up booth for the organization at the 1990 West Side Nut Club Fall Festival, and her family has been involved ever since. 

Dillbeck, who has always owned dogs, has also been a member for several years. 

"I canít imagine life without a dog," said Dillbeck, an administrative assistant at the University of Southern Indiana. 

Vanada of Newburgh volunteers for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in addition to the search dog association. 

The association has nine search dogs. Most owners live in Vanderburgh and Warrick counties. 

One owner lives in Owensboro and another in Reed, Ky. 

"We see a lot of each other," Dillbeck, of Evansville, said. "Weíre like a family." 

Dogs in the association include Labs, German shepherds, mixes, "basically any working breed," Vanada said. 

It takes 18 to 24 months to get a search dog ó who work off leashes ó trained for live body searches and longer for cadaver searches. 

Ohio Valley search dogs are put through practice searches about once a week to remain sharp. 

Thatís important, owners say, because calls for search dog help typically come once or twice a month. 

The time commitment for owners is substantial. If they have full-time jobs, their employers must be cooperative. 

And most of all, Vanada said, search dog owners must be ready to go at any hour, under any weather condition. 

"If theyíre still willing to do that," she said, "we know itís in their heart." 

Use has grown 

Use of Ohio Valley search dogs has grown as word about the association has spread. Theyíve gone on missions as far south as Mayfield and as far north as Indianapolis. 

Owners say they run across some intense situations, and searches involving children can be especially gut-wrenching. 

"You get wrapped up in wanting to do your best for the families," Dillbeck said. "But you have to do what youíre trained to do. Thatís the only way youíre going to be able to help." 

Afterward, the emotions can flow. "You get together and cry." 

On Friday morning, Dillbeck got a call from Dixon, Ky., about a missing 5-year-old. She and Jenny prepared to head south. 

But before Dillbeck could get on the road, her beeper went off. The message was: Never mind. The little girl was found, safe. All was well. 

Dillbeck would gladly take that outcome every time. 

"Those are the good ones," she said. 

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©2001 Ohio Valley Search and Rescue Dog Association