Jaco, at age 11, a Great Dane and Labrador retriever mix, has lots of experience picking up the smell of decaying bodies that have been sitting in water for days. Each time he is on a scene, he doesn't hesitate to lead the other dogs, according to his owner and head K-9 trainer Candice Braun.
She believes people don't really understand how impressive the work is that he and other search dogs do.
“(Humans) can’t provide the same evidence,” she said.
This year at the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, a three-day showcase of wildlife, visitors will get the opportunity to witness that expertise. For the first time at the expo STARR, or the Search Tactics and Rescue Recovery organization, will give a live teaser of some of the work the dogs of their K-9 unit provide in the organization’s search and recovery requests.
This is an opportunity that the organization’s founder and director, Stephen Pearrow, feels is an honor and a great accomplishment.
“This thing is going to be so big.” he said. “We actually got requested.”
Founded in 2002, STARR is a South Carolina-based organization that is comprised of highly skilled volunteer professionals who work in the recovery of a missing person. Being a volunteer organization that specializes largely in human remains and forensic investigation, they offer their services to agencies for free.
If they were to charge a fee, Braun said that many agencies probably couldn’t afford it considering their budgets. Since its creation, the organization has completed more than 400 search operations with dogs in it since the beginning.
Because of their acute sense of smell, their dogs are capable to locate things like a decaying tooth buried under dirt.
“They’re the first tool we grab in the tool box,” Pearrow said.
Historically, the Search and Rescue Dogs of the United States, a national nonprofit organization that supports these K-9 units, explains that the society largely began to really adopt training standards for search and rescue dogs around the early to mid-1990s.
For STARR, the process of training dogs takes around six months to a year since they have to be able to teach recovery in a variety of circumstances. If the organization had additional funding, he said they could possibly do it in a shorter time period. Pearrow believes that because the work they do requires them to be behind the scenes and it typically involves decaying bodies, it isn't the most attractive entity for funding.
“I could turn dogs in six weeks if I could work full time,” he said.
The hope is that the expo will be an opportunity for the public to get a greater understanding of what goes into the work they do. They also hope that people will get to see how much the dogs enjoy doing their jobs even though it may involve dark circumstances.
At the expo, the team plans to showcase their K-9 unit’s ability to detect odors while being impaired from physically seeing the source. Spectators will also get the opportunity to pet the dogs since they aren’t aggressive.
The team plans to hold a presentation on Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons for the expo.
“We’re excited about it,” Braun said. “It’s the first time we’ve done something on such a large scale.”