Interview with Dr. Melissa Newman: Oso Mudslide Volunteer Part I

Thanks to University of Kentucky  Point of Contact Andrea Higdon, we learned that Dr.  Melissa Newman and her rescue dog had been deployed to Oso to help find people buried by the mudslide. Melissa is an associate professor at the University of Kentucky and an EDEN delegate. Michelle Bufkin, AU Agriculture Communications Student/EDEN Community of Practice Social Media Assistant, recently interviewed Melissa to learn about search and rescue dogs and about her experience in Oso. Below is part one of  the interview.  

Can you tell us how you first got involved with EDEN, and what your role is?
I have been working with EDEN for about 12 years now. Originally I was just curious, but then I got involved here at the University of Kentucky with Andrea Husband and Roberta Dwyer. We received funding through grants and have not turned back since. We have done an online program and got involved with the S-CAP, Strengthening Community Agrosecurity Preparedness, Project. It just became one neat thing after another. We love working together. It is also one of the passions I have: I am a deputy sheriff, a firefighter and with the task force, so it all fits together.

How did you get involved in search and rescue and why did you get into the human remains detection part of search and rescue?
According to my mother, I have always been interested in canine work. Many years ago, a little kid went missing near my home in the middle of nowhere Kentucky. I offered my assistance since I had endurance horses and could ride trails. They sent me away saying they did not need my help. That is the only search I have ever been on that sent anyone away. So when I got my next dog I sought out a state organization to learn about search and rescue. I did not know whether the dog  or I could do it, but luckily I was gifted with a dog that absolutely loved the work. I started out just doing wilderness search and rescue, which is when a little kid goes missing in the woods you go find them, or so I thought. When the first three finds I had were deceased victims, I started to realize that, at least in Kentucky, people don’t just get lost because there is a McDonald’s within a mile if you walk in a straight line. When people go missing in Kentucky, a lot of times, it is because something bad has happened to them.

My dog was probably 2 years old when I actually started training him to be a human remains detection dog. I certified him through the North American Police Work Dog Association, because at that time all of the human remains detection dogs had to be certified through law enforcement. He was the first of many trained dogs for me. It took a mindset shift, to remind myself that I am now looking for deceased people, but it only took one search for me to recognize that bringing the loved one home is critical to the healing of the family. It is not a pleasant thing to go do, but it really does help the families. I always tell this story to explain where I am coming from: Very early in my career, I went on a search for a drowning victim, the dog and I were in the boat with our life vests on: I look over and see a woman sitting on a dock with her legs crossed, just looking out over the water, the driver of the boat tells me that she is the wife of the man we are looking for. It really hit me that she needed him back, alive would have been much better, but she needed closure. That’s how I started and that’s one of the main reasons why I keep a really good attitude about it, because I am working for the family at that point.

IMG_1012How long have you trained and handled search and rescue dogs? And what breeds do you use?
I have trained and handled these dogs for 15 years. I actually just lost my first dog in December. He was over 15 years old. I predominantly use German Shepherds, but for my Federal Emergency Management Agency, live-find work, I have a Labrador and a Dutch Shepherd, because to do the work for FEMA they have to be so athletic and over the top ready to work; they can’t be affected by the environment. I go with the best dog, not necessarily the best breed, but I am biased to German Shepherds because I love them. The traditional FEMA dog is a live-find dog. It was not until August of last year (2013) that FEMA allowed task forces to have human remains detection dogs. This was because FEMA’s objective was to get there very quickly and find everyone alive and save them. But they realized when they’re coming in days after an event occurs they still need to help in the recovery process so the community can move on.

Can you give a detailed description of how your dog does its job?
They work by smelling the air. My job is to get him in a position to have the wind blown to him, much like a bird dog works. We refer to this as air scent search dogs, as opposed to a traditional tracking dog, which a lot of people think of as a bloodhound with his nose on the ground. My dogs work off-lead. Most of the time they work without collars because we are sending them into hazardous conditions and don’t want them to get hung up on anything. We’ll send them into the area, they’ll cover the area smelling the wind and if they detect the presence of human remains, they will go to that location and get as absolutely as close as they can. We train them nose to source. The closeness is really critical in law enforcement, but we use it for disaster dogs also. They get to that point and then bark until the handler gets there to say good boy. My dogs are working towards a paycheck of a toy, different dogs have different rewards but I have found toys work best for them. Some people try to reward with food, the problem with that is that, at some disasters there are people’s kitchens with refrigerators full of food so the dog will eat while working, and not get a lot of work done. With my dogs, they know that I am the one that has his toy, so he has to find something for me to reward him.