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Search and rescue K-9's undergo extensive training on the Suncoast

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SARASOTA, FL (WWSB) - When you think of K-9’s you typically think of German Shepard’s, but did you know your dog could be a search and rescue dog?

A local non-profit on the Suncoast says if the dog can learn, they can do it.

These four-legged investigators of our future are trained in our backyard.

Peace River K-9 Search and Rescue Unit is a group of dogs and owners who train to find missing people and human remains.

“They double as pets and then they work as working dogs on the sideline and it doesn’t matter the size of the dog or the breed of the dog, it just matters whether the dog wants to work,” said Mike Hadsell, President of Peace River K-9’s.  

“The minute they see the blue shirt come out they’re at the back door waiting to go,” he continued to say.  

Director of K-9 Operations, Julie Starbuck said, “They do know when it’s time to work it’s time to work and they do get very serious about their jobs and they handle it extremely well.”

Hadsell and his dog Nixie are joining other handlers and their dogs for their weekly training session near Myakka Forest.

“They’re incredible hunters and if you think about the dog’s natural instincts, a dog’s natural instinct is to hunt,” said Starbuck.

“Whether it’s a person who’s walked away because of Alzheimer’s or autism or a person that’s deceased, you’re asking the dog to go out in the scrub that you see here that humans can’t really get into and find the remains of a human.”

So ABC7 put these K-9’s to the test.

First up, German Shepard Callie, sent to sniff out and find a cadaver bone buried in a large field.

After given the cue to go she takes off!

The reward, a game of tug of war -- and in order to get it she must signal her handler with what’s called a laying and nose push.

For Callie, it didn’t take long.

“She happens to want to work constantly. She gets up at 6 o clock every morning and says it’s time to work so it’s kind of my job to make sure she’s constantly entertained,” said Starbuck, Callie’s owner.

“But she does have an off switch and a very sweet personality,” she continued to say.

Next up, a Cocker Spaniel named Morgan tasked with a tracking and trailing test looking for any human odor.

This time ABC 7’s Jacqueline Matter played the role of the missing person. 

Now it’s on. (double box of video from drone and handheld)

Morgan picks up a scent.

The scent gets stronger, he shifts direction to hone in and that super sniffer finds her.

Now Nixie, a seasoned veteran of Peace River K-9’s.

She’s been trained to find any person in an area up to 160 acres.

The goal is to see the victim, go back to her handler and then bring him back.

She did her job so now they get to play.

A job well done, but it’s not always easy.

“There’s a lot of pressure, I mean you show up on a search scene – you’ve got law enforcement, you’ve got all kinds of people there putting pressure on you and they’ve got to learn to deal with all that, as well as do their job which is what they’re trained to do,” said Hadsell.

Peace river kK9’s is a non-profit, absorbing all the costs of getting these dogs ready.

“When we fix a cost to a search dog, at the end of the training for the handler and the search dog we’ve valued it at somewhere around 12-thousand dollars,” Hadsell said.

“They provide answers and they’re a resource that you otherwise might not have,” said Starbuck.

“The dogs have a very specific ability that humans don’t have, and they can get into places that humans might not necessarily be able to get into and they can provide information that otherwise we would not be able to find out.”

Recently, Peace River K-9’s were called in by the Sarasota Police Department to help with the search for missing teen Jabez Spann.

Below are some simple tips from Mike Hadsell, President of Peace River K-9’s, to see if your dog would make a good search and rescue K-9.

-          Lots of energy! He says he can get couch potato dogs working again if they like being outside and working.

-          A good reward system. Food, play with a toy, or will work for love and praise. If the dog will work for it, he says they have a motivation system they can use.

-          Hunting skills. Will your dog go hunt in tall grass for his favorite toy or food? Take the toy and throw it, then make your dog go find it! If it likes this game, then up the ante with having a friend hold your dog while you run away with his favorite toy. Let the dog come and find you.

-          Lastly, if the dog is a people dog, he will make a great search and rescue K-9.

Here is a behind the scenes video of ABC 7's Jacqueline Matter training her dog to learn some of the techniques of the Peace River K-9 Search and Rescue Unit.