by Frank Rescigno

It was a cool May afternoon and Patriot a three year old shepherd lab mix waited anxiously in the back of the truck as his owner, trainer and best friend Mary talked to several people about ten feet from him. Mary knew that this would be one of Patriot’s most important and difficult searches. She glanced back at Patriot in the truck and knew that he sensed something big was about to happen. Mary and Patriot were called to these mountains in rural West Virginia by a local Sheriff who had heard of their success in tracking lost persons. But they weren’t the first team in the area, for the past twenty four hours three other dog and handler search teams walked this area with no success. These other dogs and handlers were now resting in some tents set up by the local National Guard. Mary knew she would have to talk to these handlers before starting the search, but first wanted to take Patriot out of the truck and meet the parents of the lost boy.

Mary walked up to the couple with Patriot on a short leash. She introduced herself and then introduced Patriot. She could see the pain and fear in their faces. Patriot must have seen this too because she just laid down quietly at the couple’s feet. The couple explained to Mary that their seven year old son Scott was hiking with them in the foothills when he disappeared. They said they stopped for a picnic lunch by a pond. When Scott had finished eating, he asked if could explore a little. His parents told him “okay, but just don’t wander to far”. When they finished and were cleaning up they called to Scott but he didn’t answer. They continued to yell and look for Scott but didn’t find him. After a few hours of looking they started to panic. It was then they contacted the local sheriff. Mary knew all this already but let the couple tell her again.

It had been seventy two hours since Scott was last seen and Mary knew the chances of finding Scott alive were not good. It got cold in these mountains at night. When the couple was done talking, Mary thanked them, and she and Patriot started to walk off. Scott’s mother called to her and she turned around. Scott’s mother said “there’s one thing I think you should know. Scott is very afraid of dogs”. Mary just smiled and walked towards the tents. In the tent, she spoke with the Sheriff and the other dog handlers. She looked around and saw the other search and rescue dogs lying in their crates. They looked really played out. The handlers told her that the terrain was very hard to navigate and to make things worse they said that before they were called in there were one hundred National Guardsman who had walked through the area. She saw that the handlers were frustrated and exhausted. They moved to a table where a map was.

On the map, a large red circle showed the search area. Also, on the map, were two small red x’s. The Sheriff pointed to one x and said that was where the boy was last seen. One of the handlers stepped up and told Mary that only one dog a German shorthaired pointer had hit on any scent. He pointed to the other x on the map. It was about twelve miles from where they were currently standing. Just then a Colonel from the guard came in and said that the chopper will be here in five minutes. Mary knew that a helicopter was the fastest way into the area but wasn’t happy about it. She knew Patriot had no problem with flying but it still bothered her. Mary folded up the map and she and Patriot headed for the truck. Mary took out her backpack and checked the contents. As she was putting it on, the Sheriff came over and gave her a portable radio and showed her what channel to tune in. She placed the radio in her pack and took out a thirty foot trailing lead and harness and put it on Patriot. Patriot perked right up when the harness was put on; he knew it was time to go to work. They both waited for the chopper to land and slowly walked towards it. When they were a few feet from the chopper Scott’s mother came running up. Mary didn’t hear her because of the chopper blades, but Patriot stopped and turned. Scott’s mother shouted to Mary “please find my baby”. Mary patted Patriot’s head and said “we will do everything we can”. They boarded the chopper and took off. Scott’s parents, the Sheriff and the other dog handlers all watched. By the looks on their faces it seemed like they didn’t have much hope.
The helicopter pilot had been briefed and told Mary it would be a short flight into the search area. Patriot was lying down at Mary’s feet very content. Mary stroked Patriot’s back and knew he was ready to go to work. Mary was still uncomfortable flying even though she had been in helicopters at least a dozen times. She put her head back and closed her eyes. She day dreamed about the first time she met Patriot. It was about two months after she lost her first SAR dog Lance. A German shepherd who passed away at nine years of age due to heart failure. She knew it would be best to get another dog as soon as possible so she contacted several rescue groups and animal shelters and told them what type of dog she was looking for. It was a hot summer day when she got the call from the local animal shelter. They told her a four month old mixed breed pup had come in over the weekend and they thought she should come down and take a look at him. When she arrived at the shelter she was told that the pup is a cross between a German shepherd and a Labrador retriever.

His owners had turned him in because they said he had too much energy for them. Mary walked back to the kennel area and saw a black and tan pup that ran right up to the gate and started licking her hands. She opened the gate and the pup burst out and jumped on her. She fell in love with him on the spot but knew he would have to pass some tests before she knew if he would serve her purpose. She took him outside and asked one of the shelter volunteers to help her with some of the tests. Mary wanted another air scent dog. These dogs do not use scent discrimination, they work with the wind to cover a certain area while looking for missing persons. Air scent dogs range away from their handlers and can cover a large amount of area in less time than a search party. Dogs in this category must be able to find victims who are dead or alive.

The first thing Mary did was to see if the pup would follow her. She had the volunteer hold the dog and walked twenty feet away. She called the pup, “pup, pup” and he came to her right away. She walked away and the pup followed her. Next, she took a ball from her pocket and making sure the pup saw it while she tossed it a few feet away. The pup ran right to the ball and picked it up. Mary walked around; the pup followed her with the ball in his mouth. Next, she took out a small towel and dragged it in front of the pup. He grabbed the towel and shook his head. Then, Mary took the pup and placed him on his back, holding him there while she started to count. When he struggled she let him up and walked away. The pup followed her. There were several more tests performed. Mary knew that these few tests did not mean that the pup could be a search and rescue dog but she told the volunteer that she liked what she saw and would like to adopt the pup.

Inside while filling out the paperwork she noticed that it was July the Fourth. She decided to name the pup “Patriot”. With all the paperwork done, Mary brought Patriot home to settle in. He was given some food and water, taken outside for some exercise, and then put in his crate. Training would not begin for a few days. Mary remembered training Lance and how it took almost three years before they were operational. She looked forward to the training process and bonding with Patriot. The next week she brought Patriot to her SAR group to begin training. His first lesson would be to watch all the older experienced dogs go through their training drills and also socializing with them and their handlers. The other handlers liked what they saw in Patriot. He socialized well but was a little aloof. He also liked being by Mary all the time. When he was placed in his crate in the back of the truck he settled down quickly. Mary spoke with some of the other handlers and they all agreed that Patriot just might have what it takes to be a search and rescue dog. They knew Mary and had worked with her and Lance and knew Mary was a good trainer and handler and if anyone could make this work she could. As the months went by, Patriot proved to be a great worker and was doing better than Lance did at this age. The training seemed very easy to Patriot even when Mary made the exercise harder. Patriot had a way of letting Mary know when he was ready to go onto the next step in the training process. Mary knew they were partners and becoming a team. In just under two years, they became fully certified and operational. Other dogs had become certified in less time but Mary had never set a timetable on when to become operational. She just let Patriot do things in his own time. Mary opened her eyes when the pilot told her they would be landing in two minutes. She looked down at Patriot and saw a four month pup full of energy. As Mary looked down she saw that the area was mountainous, and extremely rocky with a very dense forest. She now knew what the other handlers meant when they said the terrain was hard. There was a very small clearing in a valley where the helicopter landed. Mary got out and Patriot followed. She hovered over Patriot as the helicopter pulled off. She checked her gear and turned on the radio the Sheriff had given her. This was one of the few times she and Patriot would be working without a “tag along”. A tag along was another person, usually another handler or a police officer. But the other handlers were exhausted and the Sheriff didn’t have men he could spare. So it would be just her and Patriot. She checked the compass, knelt down beside Patriot, whispered something in his ear and he went off. Patriot was at the end of a thirty foot lead. He was zig zagging around the area trying to pick up a scent.

Mary knew that search and rescue dogs are trained so that a search is a game. On completion of the game, the dog is rewarded. Patriot was working hard at this game, he wanted his reward. Mary had that reward in her pack, a ball attached to a short piece of rope. Patriot also knew he would not get the ball until the search was completed. Patriot was a search dog but also Mary’s pet. He would show the same kind of bond and emotions that any dog would show their human partner. So after a find Patriot would always get his reward first before Mary checked the victims’ physical condition. Even if a training search is unsuccessful the handler usually will hide someone so the dog can find that person in a few minutes. This allows the dog to get his reward after a successful find. They had been searching for a few hours now and Patriot had not alerted on anything. Mary felt it was time for a break. She called Patriot and he came right to her. Mary gave him some water, drank some herself and they both sat down. Mary pulled out the map and checked her compass. She marked approximately where she thought they were on the map. Patriot was laying down resting.
The longest search they had in the past was seven hours. They were halfway to that point now. As Mary rested she day dreamed again. This time about all the books she read on search and rescue dogs and all the classes she had attended. Search and rescue dogs date back to 980. It was then the Monks used their dogs that were initially guard dogs to located people in the Bernard Pas. These dogs located many lost travelers and also avalanche victims. During the first World War, the Red Cross trained dogs to locate wounded soldiers on the battlefields. In World War II during the London Blitz, dogs were used to locate victims buried in buildings that were bombed out. Today, dogs are used to locate lost persons, criminals and victims of disasters (both alive and dead). They are employed by civilians, police and the military of many countries.

Mary never regretted becoming a search and rescue handler. Mary got up; Patriot followed her lead and started searching again. Patriot was full of energy but Mary was starting to get depressed and frustrated. She knew that if she let these feelings take over that Patriot would feel them through the thirty foot lead also. She did not want him to get frustrated so she verbally encouraged him. Not two minutes after the encouragement she noticed a change in Patriot. It wasn’t a full alert but he was moving faster and not ranging out as far. Patriot made a ninety degree turn and was working hard. All this time, they were going in a fairly straight direction and Mary wasn’t happy about the abrupt change. She was about to call Patriot back, but she heard those words she had heard so many times before. “Trust your dog”. So she let Patriot continue. They were now moving down a steep mountainside and the going was hard. It was rocky and there were many deadfalls. Mary was having a hard time keeping up with Patriot but she didn’t want to slow him down. Patriot would look back every now and then to check on Mary.
As they were heading down this steep ravine Mary noticed it ended in a densely forested valley. They were two thirds of the way down and Mary was having trouble keeping her balance because Patriot was moving very fast. Normally she would have held him back some, but her gut feeling was to let him go. Finally, they reached the bottom and Patriot came back to Mary. Patriot stared at her. She had seen this look before and knew Patriot was onto something. They took a brief rest and Patriot was off again. He was in full alert now and moving with a purpose. Mary could feel the excitement building in her. They had traveled about seventy five yards along the valley floor when Patriot barked and ran back to Mary. This was the signal that he had found something. Mary followed Patriot to the spot and Patriot started digging at the ground with his paws. All Mary saw was a small crack in the ground about fifteen inches wide and maybe twenty four inches long. It was a crevice in the ground. Mary dropped her pack and took out a flashlight. She shined it down the crevice but at first didn’t see anything. Patriot was still pawing at the ground. Mary kept looking and all of a sudden she saw something red. It was twenty to thirty feet down the crevice. Mary lying down on her stomach put her head, arm and flashlight down the crevice. Concentrating very hard on the red object she realized it was a down jacket. Focusing more she could make out Scott’s body stuck between the walls of the crevice. The body was very still. Mary reached in her pack and took out the ball and rope and gave it to Patriot to play with. His reward for a successful find. Patriot played with the ball but not with his usual vigor.

Mary yelled down to Scott but he didn’t respond. She tried several more times but still got no response. Patriot with the rope and ball in his mouth lie down next to Mary and put his head down the crevice. She reached for the radio that the Sheriff had given her. She knew that she could not get down the hole and that she would need help. She keyed the microphone on the radio and called the base camp. She waited for the radio to crackle a response but none came. She transmitted again. No response. She looked up at the radio and saw that the light was on so the radio should work. She yelled down the hole again hoping Scott would respond. After several more tries with the radio, Mary sat down and collected her thoughts. She looked through her pack and saw the flare gun. This was a piece of equipment that all search and rescue handlers carried. Along with this piece of equipment came some rope, a compass, flashlight, matches and a first aid kit. She could fire a flare but who would see it. She tried the radio again, no answer. She looked around and thought maybe because she was in a valley the radio signal was not getting out. She looked up the steep ridge her and Patriot came down. She looked back down the hole. She knew she would have to climb back up the ridge and try transmitting from there. She yelled down the hole, “Scott I will be right back I am leaving Patriot here with you so you won’t be alone”. She put Patriot in a down stay at the edge of the crevice, put her pack on and started up the ridge. Patriot watched her but didn’t move from the edge of the crevice. He still had his ball in his mouth. Mary was halfway up when she slipped and tumbled down almost to the base of the ridge. She felt a sharp pain in her knee. When she looked down, she saw her leg was pinned between two rocks.

The pain shot through her whole body and she began to get light headed. She fought hard and would not let herself pass out. She managed to move one of the rocks and free her leg. It began to swell immediately. When she tried to stand the leg collapsed under her. Mary was light headed but did not panic. She took an elastic bondage from her pack and wrapped it tightly around her knee. She secured it with some tape. Patriot had seen her fall down the slope. He was concerned but did not leave Scott. After wrapping her knee Mary put her back pack on, she found a dead limb and used it to help her stand up. She knew that Scott’s only chance depended on her getting to the top of the ridge, getting the radio to work and getting help. Walking and sometimes crawling, Mary worked her way up the ridge. She glanced down and saw Patriot watching her. It was very hard going but Mary was determined. After what she thought was hours but was only fifteen minutes Mary collapsed at the top. Mary took the radio, keyed the mike and spoke into it. A few seconds later, Mary heard the Sheriff’s voice come over the radio. She told him they had found Scott but they were in trouble. Mary explained to the Sheriff how Scott was trapped down a narrow hole in the ground, and she could not get to him. She took out her map and gave the Sheriff their approximate location. The Sheriff said they would be coming in by helicopter as soon as possible. Putting the radio away and taking a drink of water Mary started back down to Scott and Patriot. Mary knew she could not walk down the slope so she sat on her backside and slid down. By sliding feet first, she really aggravated her knee. She had to stop several times to keep from passing out due to the pain. All the way down, she kept her eyes on Patriot. He was watching her too.

When she got to the valley floor, she crawled over to Patriot. He was happy to see her; she took the ball and threw it. Patriot chased after his reward. It was like Patriot knew that it was going to be okay. Mary yelled down to Scott that help was coming. Mary laid down and rested. Sometime later, she heard the helicopters before she saw them. Patriot heard them too. Mary was relieved when she saw the helicopters. She took out the flare gun and fired a red flare to mark their location. She could not know if they saw the flare because the radio still didn’t work in the valley. Mary saw the helicopters begin to descend about a half mile to the west. She told Scott that help was here. She only wished she knew if Scott could hear her talking to him. From where the helicopters landed Mary knew it would take at least a half hour over the terrain for the rescuers to get their position. She refused to close her eyes for fear of falling asleep or passing out. Mary shined the light down the hole but saw no movement. When the Sheriff and the rescuers arrived Mary showed them where Scott was, hugged Patriot and abruptly passed out.

Mary woke up in a tent back at the base camp. She was on a stretcher and Patriot was lying beside her. She could see that someone had fed and watered Patriot. She figured it was ones of the other handlers. She also noticed that her cuts and bruises had been attended to and her leg was in a splint. A paramedic came over to her and said he didn’t think her leg was broken but they would know better when they got her to a hospital. The paramedic told Mary that Scott’s parents wanted to see her. Mary knew that the victim’s families almost always want to come over and pet the search and rescue dog and thank the handler for finding their loved ones. When Scott’s parents came in they thanked Mary for finding their son and asked if they could pet Patriot and thank him also. Mary with tears in her eyes consented to their request. She could see that while Scott’s parents were petting and thanking Patriot they were both crying.

They looked at Mary and told her that the rescue workers were still trying to get Scott out and that there was not enough room on the helicopter for them to go to the area. They told her that one helicopter had flown Mary and Patriot back to the base camp and then went back with more equipment. During the whole conversation, they were petting and hugging Patriot. While waiting for news from the rescuers, Mary refused to be taken to the hospital. Scott’s parents stayed with her and asked her many questions about Patriot. What breed was he, how old he was, how she got him. Mary was tired but answered all their questions. A deputy came in and told them that Scott was out of the hole and they were flying him to the nearest hospital about thirty miles away. The deputy said there was a car outside to take Scott’s parents. The parents said their goodbyes and left.

July third three years later, Mary was opening the mail and saw a card. Every year since finding Scott, Mary and Patriot received a card wishing them well and wishing Patriot a happy birthday. They knew that it wasn’t really Patriot’s birthday but they knew that Mary had gotten him on July fourth. Even though, Scott did not survive, the cards still came. Mary patted Patriot’s head, rubbed her knee and cried.

the End

Thank you, Frank, for allowing the ISSDC to share your stories.


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