The woman had been missing for four days during a typical Missouri summer – temperatures approaching triple digits with humidity to match.
Indications were the woman, who was known to have emotional problems, had been seen in a state park southwest of St. Louis. Sadly, earlier searches had come up empty.
The call went out for Brad Stahlman, a veteran firefighter/paramedic with the Metro West Fire Protection District and his search-and-rescue dog Buddy, a yellow Labrador retriever with a well known record of tracking the “untrackable” and finding the “unfindable.”
Stahlman and Buddy were part of a small group of teams that make themselves available to help find missing persons, drowning victims and others injured or killed in natural disasters or in man-made mayhem. A 30-year veteran at Metro West and a rescue dog handler for 20 years, Stahlman and the animals he has trained are considered state and regional assets, ready to assist when a need arises.
The odds were stacked against Stahlman and Buddy that summer. Some say it’s virtually impossible for a dog to track someone missing for four days. The hot, humid weather compounded the difficulty, as did the fact that an eyeglass case provided the only scent.
An earlier tracking team had gone some six miles before losing the woman’s trail. That’s where Buddy began his difficult task, roaming back and forth until picking up the trail in a sheltered spot where a trace of the scent remained. Buddy lost the scent frequently but would roam the area until he picked it up again and could move forward.
After an arduous two miles and several hours, much of it spent roaming while Buddy used his sensitive nose to find the on-again, off-again scent, Stahlman and others in the search group – their water supply exhausted – were ready to call it a day. But Buddy suddenly picked up the pace, his nose no longer close to the ground, but up in the air.
A few hundred yards further, the dog darted off the rough, almost invisible trail and bounded down a slope and into a ravine invisible from the path the search party had traveled.
In the ravine, they found the missing woman. She had spread a blanket on the ground before ingesting a fatal dose of a medication. It wasn’t a happy ending but Stahlman knew that finding the woman’s body at least would provide an element of closure for the victim’s family.
The incident was one of some 200 or more searches conducted by Stahlman and Buddy; his predecessor, Candy, a female yellow Lab; and now Hallie, also a yellow Lab.
Buddy died recently at age 11, the victim of a stroke and other health issues.
In a recent conversation, Stahlman talked about Buddy, Candy and Hallie, their experiences together and other observations gained in training his “partners.”
One of Buddy’s more recent tasks was helping to find a drowning victim last summer in the Meramec River at Castlewood State Park. There was no doubt this was a recovery task, not a rescue effort. The young drowning victim had disappeared under the water well before Metro West arrived on the scene after the 911 dispatch center received the emergency call.
The grim reality is that when a person dies, under whatever circumstances, the body begins to decompose quickly thereafter. The process releases gas bubbles with a scent that initially no human can detect. But with a sense of smell 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than a human, a trained dog can, even when those gas bubbles have risen to the surface of a flowing river.
Estimating the speed of the river’s current, Metro West put Stahlman and Buddy in a boat downstream from where the drowning victim last was sighted and they motored back toward the scene. Buddy “alerted” at the point where he detected the scent.
Again, with a measurement of the current, the Metro West recovery team estimated where the victim likely would be found and proceeded with its sad task of sending a trained diver into the murky water to recover the body.
Not only was the victim’s body found quickly, the time the diver spent underwater in a river known for its snags and other dangers was minimized. The use of sonar also helps in pinpointing a victim’s location and contributes to divers’ safety by shortening the time spent in a search.
Search and rescue dogs know when and how to respond to the work they are asked to do. But, as Stahlman noted, maintaining their skill requires that they receive positive reinforcement for their efforts.
“If we spend a day that doesn’t have a satisfactory conclusion, we invent one by letting the dog ‘find’ a cadaver decoy or other kind of reward that gives us a chance to praise the dog and let it know the work was done well,” Stahlman said.
The nature of work done by Stahlman and his dogs means that happy endings are the minority. They traveled to Joplin in May 2011 to aid in the search for victims and survivors of the catastrophic tornado that struck that community and killed more than 150 people. They also have been involved in the search for murder victims in multiple states.
However, a recent incident did have a more positive outcome. An elderly man had wandered away from a West County nursing home, but Stahlman and Buddy soon found him alive and confused but uninjured.
Stahlman readily admits he learned a great deal in training his first dog, Candy. He says dogs are easier to train if they are a breed that has been bred to work, a reason why he prefers Labrador retrievers.
“Labs have the stamina to outwork other breeds and they are ready to go in all kinds of weather,” Stahlman observed.
While he prefers to train females, Buddy was a notable exception, and in more ways than one. Stahlman likes to start the training process when a dog is about 8 weeks old but Buddy was 8 months old. The animal quickly made up for the belated start and earned the description “the best dog I’ve ever had” from his owner.
Training a search and rescue dog requires a lot of hard work built on plenty of repetition.
Hallie, now nearing age 8, has taken Buddy’s spot as the lead dog when Stahlman is called to help in any search.
Although a full-blooded yellow Labrador, Hallie is the result of breeding an American Lab with one from Britain. Accordingly, she has a more pointed muzzle and a coat with a reddish tint, causing the casual observer to conclude she is some other breed.
“I just tell people ‘she’s a Labrador and I’ve got the papers to prove it,’” Stahlman said with a smile. “I figure she has a couple more good years left before she starts to slow down. And since I’m 58 now, that might be a good time for both of us to retire.”
As for Buddy, his recent death was marked in a manner not unlike that accorded to his human colleagues in the firefighter/paramedic brotherhood. A contingent of personnel from the Eureka Fire Protection District joined those from Metro West to honor the faithful dog during a service at the crematory where the animal’s remains had been sent.
His ashes now are in a handsome wooden box bearing his name. It rests in a display cabinet in Stahlman’s home beside a similar container with Candy’s name and cremains.