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TRSAR Dog Team


Dogs Help Find Lost Patient

Friday, August 17, 2015

By Alexis Bechman

Robin Ippolito’s Labrador-pit bull mix dog, Pollyanna, is one of the six tracking dogs trained to help the Tonto Rim Search and Rescue.
The dogs helped rescuers locate an Alzheimer’s patient lost overnight.

Toulouse, a 6-year-old blue tick coonhound dog stopped, looked at its handler and whined outside 87 Cyclery early Monday morning. He stopped at the same spot two other Tonto Rim Search and Rescue tracking dogs had stopped after following the scent of a missing man through neighborhoods and along the Beeline Highway.

With no sign of the Alzheimer’s patient, the search and rescue volunteers found themselves face to face with a frightening mystery. The dogs had done their job; now their handlers had to decipher what the dogs had revealed.

The next day, the man turned up sleeping under a tree in Pine — and the message of the dogs became clear.

The man had wandered down the highway after walking away from the lock-down unit at Payson Care Center. A passerby picked up the 66-year-old. Perhaps thinking he lived in Pine, the good Samaritan drove him up and dropped him off.

The man later told nurses he was trying to get to the Farmers Market at the Sawmill Crossing, which staff took him to every weekend.

Susan Starr, TRSAR board member and dog team leader, said the dogs were telling searchers the man had come down the highway and left the area.

“I consider this one of the best outcomes we have ever had with the dogs, especially such good tracking dogs as Ringo, Chill and Toulouse,” she said. “They went to where the subject was picked up and they stopped and all three told us “this man is not here” and that is what good track trail dogs do.”

This is the second major mission for the TRSAR dog team this year. In April, a woman wandered away from the Powell Place. She was found at Payson High School.

While most residents hear about TRSAR volunteers hiking down to Fossil Creek to rescue dehydrated hikers, into the various canyons around Rim Country to carry out injured canyon-goers and on the trails looking for lost hikers, they also have a talented team of four-legged workers.

What started with one dog several years ago has swelled into a team of six dogs.

Ringo, a 5-year-old Aussie/hound mix, was the first dog the team trained and Starr now cares for her at home. She then added her 6-year-old bluetick hound Toulouse.

The other dogs in the team include Lewis, a 10-year-old Labrador/heeler mix, owned and handled by Jim McMillion; Echo, a 3-year-old Aussie mix, owned and handled by Margaret Johnson; Chill, a 4-year-old pure-bred Australian shepherd, owned and handled by Greg Reed and Robin Ippolito’s 1.5-year-old Labrador/pit mix Pollyanna.

All of the dogs undergo long hours of training, which TRSAR funds through community donations. The handlers pay for the dogs’ food and all veterinary needs are provided for free by Alan Hallman, with Star Valley Veterinary Clinic.

At 1:30 a.m. Sunday, Starr got a call that an Alzheimer’s patient was missing.

After the April mission, the team in May went through some new training to learn new tracking techniques.

This was the chance to put those to work.

Starr said they learned about trust at training. For years, the handlers had let their dogs wander wherever they wanted on a search.

But sometimes this lets dogs get off task and is “just taking you for a hike.”

Every so often now, a handler checks his or her dog. Gently pulling back on the leash will either prompt the dog to continue to pull in the direction of the scent trail or turn for directions, indicating they’ve lost the scent.

The team also learned to recognize when the dogs have concluded the person they were tracking is no longer in the area.

“This is so difficult to read,” she said.

Handlers must recognize the dog’s signal, especially after it has followed a scent track for several miles and then just stops. Some handlers might think the dog has given up. But in this case, the dogs were signaling the man’s scent had vanished at the point he got into the car.

“We had three very confirmed negatives,” Starr said. “I was really impressed with the three teams.”

The urban environment added to the difficulty of the search. When a person walks down a street or a trail, they leave a scent trail. Some bloodhounds can detect this trail even two weeks later.

This time, the man had been missing for only a few hours. 

Each dog sniffed the man’s pillowcase and then led their handler through a 6-foot gate outside the lockdown wing of Payson Care Center the missing man had scaled (he had a history of this). About 10 feet from the gate, was a 4-foot gate, locked, but loose on its hinges so there was a gap of about a foot. Ringo, nose on ground, went through these and then went west through the car wash parking lot and south on 87.

At the 87 Cyclery bike shop his head came up and he stopped. Sgt. Rod Cronk, with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, started dog team No. 2 Reed and Chill, with Kate Nicholson and Mary Gomez-Robles as support. After about 20 minutes, Chill stopped in front of 87 Cyclery and put his head up.

The final dog, Toulouse, as large as he is, fought his way through the bottom hole in the chain locked gate with his vest on and took off. He cleared every doorway, every stairwell, every culvert along the way. He reached the same area at the bike shop as had Ringo and Chill and stopped.

It was now 5 a.m.

“I am very confident that our dogs searched along an active highway where scent is tossed around willy-nilly and hard to lock on to, but the dogs prevailed. This is something we have trained for, to understand when a dog gives a negative, telling you the search is effectively over because the subject is no longer there.”

The GCSO found the man Monday at 2:30 p.m. in Pine. He had suffered no injuries during his misadventure.

A nurse from Payson Care Center later told Starr the man was trying to get to the Farmers Market, which he visited every Saturday. He told the nurse that an old man in a truck stopped and asked him what he was doing, told him it was too dark and too cold for him to be out and asked him where he was headed. The missing man pointed north.

“The bottom line is our dogs are smart and very attuned to the search, but they depend upon us to interpret what they are telling us and this is very complicated and very difficult for us humans,” Starr said. “I’d like to thank Cronk for his expert handling of the search and how he handled the dog teams. You cannot ask for better.”

Chili, a purebred Australian shepherd trained by Greg Reed, is a member of the Tonto Rim Search and Rescue dog team.

Ringo, an Aussie-hound mix
trained by Susan Star is a  member of the Tonto Rim Search and Rescue dog team.

Toulouse, a bluetick hound trained by Susan Starr, is a member of the Tonto Rim  Search and Rescue dog team.


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