By Matt Masters
About four years ago, the search for a missing Alzheimer’s patient spurred Wilson County Emergency Management Agency firefighter and paramedic Anthony Nettles to turn to a tried-and-tested asset to find missing people, bloodhounds.
Nettles started an all-volunteer organization called Wilson County K-9 Search and Rescue, which is dedicated to assist first responders in search and rescue throughout the county.
Otis the hound was the first of Nettles’ pack soon after he realized the need and chance to help save lives. He started his training with experienced dog trainers from the Scientific Working Group on Dog and Orthogonal detector Guidelines.
The team has two full-grown bloodhounds named Otis and Dossi, one German Shepard named Harley and recently welcomed bloodhound puppies, Penny and Gumbo.
“My wife and I started training with them, and it took about two years to get Otis certified and comfortable to where we knew that if it was my kid that we were looking for, that I had no doubt that this dog was going to go out and find them,” Nettles said. “After that, we picked up Dossi from a shelter in Alabama, and we started training her. She’s our human-remains dog. She does cadaver work on land and water.”
The dogs are trained in “man-trailing,” which means the dog follows someone’s scent, while tracking is following footstep to footstep in thunderstorms, snow, across asphalt and rivers, wherever the scent leads them.
“We train at least 24 hours a month and four or five hours each weekend, but that’s just the big training,” Nettles said. “We also do little trainings at home. We have someone go hide in the woods, things like that, so we’ve probably got about 6,000 hours in Otis right now, and Dossi has about 2,000.”
Nettles said the bloodhounds have the ability to smell 1,000 times that of humans, something that makes them especially good at tracking.
“When you walk into a house, and you smell beef stew, he walks into the house and he smells the oregano; he smells the salt; he smells the carrot, all different, and he processes it down. And that’s what makes them great scent-discrimination dogs,” Nettles said. “They’re amazing animals.”
Nettles also said each dog has their own unique command to start, which for Otis is, “Find ‘em,” and for Gumbo is “rougarou,” a reference to Nettles’ Louisiana upbringing.
Wilson County K-9 Search and Rescue’s newest member to the four-person team is Barron Grant, who also works for WEMA.
“I’ve been wanting to get on the team for a while,” Grant said. “Search and rescue has always been a passion for me, always had a love for dogs and animals, and I also work as a firefighter and paramedic for the county, as well, and being able do both is just icing on the cake. I get to do my two loves in this life, and it’s awesome.”
It’s clear for Nettles and Grant, the bond goes beyond owner and pet to the level of an almost spiritual connection. It’s a professionalism that transcends species and requires an understanding their work can help save lives or facilitate healing in the toughest of times.
“We work out heart out. We don’t charge anything for the service. It’s free, and we’re all volunteers. You could blindfold me, and I’d trust Otis with my life, like he trusts me,” Nettles said. “Just working out there, knowing that we’re fixing to go to work, he starts singing and jumping up and down. He loves to do this. Most dogs are driven by food, like Penny here. She’s a hungry little girl, so we treat her. But Otis, he’s gotten such a love for what he does that all he wants is daddy to tell him that he’s a good boy, and we have a little party at the end.”
That party includes lots of pets and a high-pitched praise of the dog’s efforts, something Nettles insists helps to communicate the good work to the copper hound.
Nettles said, while the dogs are able to track people long into their lives, they plan to keep the dogs working for about 10 years before passing the baton – or in this case the dog bone – onto the next generation of hounds.
“Our average is about nine to 10 years, and then we start training the next group and, like I said, we lucked up with Gumbo and Penny, so this will put Otis at right about five or six years. That way, Gumbo and Penny will be about 2 when we get ready to certify them. That way, they’re ready to go, and we can start looking for the next ones,” Nettles said. “You always want to keep enough ammunition to fight the war.”
Nettles said securing a total of six members would be optimal for their group who looks toward an organized future of working in Wilson County, which would include zoning off the county for faster response times. But what he’s most excited about is his development of Wilson County K-9 Search and Rescue’s newest effort, a voluntary database of people with autism and Alzheimer’s who may be most at risk of becoming a missing person.
The program, called Project Safe Autistic Alzheimers Return Assistance, is the first of its kind in Wilson County and as far as Nettles knows, may be the first of its kind in the world to help save precious time and lives in a missing persons case.
“We’ve got 35, 45, maybe even 50 questions that we have to ask to get adequate information so that we can do a search,” Nettles said. “It’s very time consuming and, if you can imagine, if you had a son with autism that walked off, you’re going to be frantic. You’re not going to understand why I’m standing there asking you so many questions when I’ve got a dog right there that could be at work. So I got with [WEMA] director Joey Cooper and [Wilson County] Mayor Hutto, and we’ve developed a link on Wilson County’s website, which should be operational soon, and it has all the questions there, and in your leisure time, you can answer the questions, so that if your child wanders off, you call 911 as usual and tell the dispatcher that you enrolled in Project SAARA, and this is the number that they gave me.”
Nettles said the dispatchers would then send the identification number to the search-and-rescue group, which would save about two hours of vital search time to find someone who may be missing.
“It also tells you how to develop a scent article that you can keep at home. That way, we won’t have to come in and take your toothbrush, your hairbrush, your clothes or pillowcase and shove it up a dog’s nose,” Nettles said.
Nettles said developing a scent article is as simple as having a person wipe themselves with a gauze pad, and have them place that in a sealed reusable plastic bag, double bag the gauze in another plastic bag and place those in a sealed manila envelope with a recent photo of the person who might go missing. Nettles said the Project SAARA identification number should be written on the envelope, and the envelope can be stored in the freezer without the scent expiring.
More information about Wilson County K-9 Search and Rescue may be found at facebook.com/Wilson-County-K9-Search-and-Rescue.