By Lee Hurley and photos by Janie Shelswell-White
On a mild Saturday in late February, I visited Bear Creek Farm owned by Kenny and Arthur Powell. It’s a well-groomed 400 acre slice of the country less than 30 minutes from downtown Birmingham with horse stables and riding trails. Horses, however interesting and beautiful they are, were not the reason for my visit. I was following up on a tip from my friend Missy Cox who rides at the farm. Missy said, “I have a story idea for you. There is a group of interesting and eclectic men and woman who vigorously train their dogs for search and rescue missions at Bear Creek.” That sounded cool. So I called up co-founder Stephen Burton and found myself learning about the Red Mountain Search Dog Association. Established in the Birmingham area in 2014 by co-founders Kenny Powell, her husband Arthur, and Stephen Burton, the Red Mountain Search Dog Association is a volunteer nonprofit search and rescue association organized to assist law enforcement and other government agencies in the search for lost or missing persons. For the past 6 years, the group has furnished certified handler and dog teams as well as highly trained support and ground search personnel for search and rescue missions throughout the state.
At the end of our brief conversation Stephen said, “Lee, you really need to come out to the farm and see how we train and meet some of the team.” After a few stop and go’s on my part, including rain and other banal duties, I drove out to the farm with the kind of knowledge in my head that does very little until you get out there and see for yourself.
I can’t say that I was scared pulling up to the rows of trucks and SUVs with their dogs inside, but I can say the dogs knew I was coming well before their trainers did. I had been told these canines are trained to be people-friendly, unlike other types of law enforcement trained animals, but neither should I tackle one of their owners. Check. In fact, the first thing I had asked Kenny and Stephen was this: ‘What makes a good search and rescue dog?’ Their combined answer: “Characteristics of a good working dog include over the top energy, athletic build, and the focus and drive to search through various conditions and distractions.”
Stephen went on to say, “Most of these search dogs don’t make what most people would consider good pets. They require an enormous amount of exercise, both physically and mentally.”
To put it another way, these dogs are wound tighter than the Duracell Easter Bunny with as much drive and energy as Samford’s new basketball coach, Bucky McMillan. When not out on the chase during training, they are in kennels pleading with anxious eyes to spring out on the next mission. I met Belgian Malinoises Sadie and Jemma (there are five of these special breeds on the team), a Doberman Pincher named Talitha, a Standard Poodle named Oliver, and a pair of Otterhounds named Oli and Ava. Other breeds who naturally fit this line of works are German Shepherds, Australian Shepherds, and of course, Bloodhounds.
The first thing to know about this motivated and diverse group of people is that they are very serious about their work. To become certified is no piece of cake. Candidates demonstrate basic search and rescue competency through written tests and practical skill demonstrations, receiving different levels of certifications as they continue their education and experience. Needless to say, the team only deploys certified search dogs and handlers on all search missions.
They all seem to understand the military axiom that an ounce of sweat in training prevents a pint of blood in action. And so after talking with Kenny and Stephen and others for 30 minutes and checking out the tracking equipment and meeting the search dogs, I was sent out on the farm to hide at a site of my choosing to see if Kenny’s K9 Sadie could find me. Without digging a 20 foot hole and hiding underground I hid as best I could behind a tree and large shrubs near a fence line, but I was pretty sure that Sadie was going to have no problem finding me, and I was right. Fifteen minutes later, I could hear the sound of a dog followed by Kenny the Handler and Emily the Flanker (A Flanker is the second searcher in the 2-person 1-dog teams deployed), and Sadie found me and kindly hinted with circles to stay the hell where I was. I did as I was told.
After hanging around the farm for another 45 minutes talking with the group and watching other training scenarios I went on my way, and before I could even start on the article a few weeks later, my friend Missy called me about this:
Rescuers scouring the rural plains of Alabama on Friday found a missing 4-year-old girl, nearly 48 hours after she initially vanished, authorities said. Evelyn Vadie Sides and her dog were located about 3:20 p.m. near Lee Road 65, Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones announced. An emotional Jones thanked 300 volunteers who joined first responders in searching for the girl.
Kenny and Stephen along with Sadie and Jemma their K9s and other members of the team had been a part of that massive search. That brought everything into perspective.
Here are a few more questions I asked Kenny and Stephen which helped me understand this somewhat involved but important organization.
How many cases do you typically take on each year?
We participated in 12 searches in 2019, and we have averaged about a search per month so far this year.
Can you talk about a few of the more interesting searches in general terms?
We have been called out for a variety of searches for the past few years, from hurricanes and tornadoes to lost children and the elderly. Some cases have had happy endings where loved ones have been reunited with their families, and others we have been able to help provide closure for families whose love ones have passed away. Lately, since having K9 Sadie certify in human remains detection, we have worked some “cold cases.”
Why train in different areas?
It is important to train in a variety of areas to keep things fresh for the dogs. They are smart and would likely check out hiding places used before if we were to train at the same property or properties. Our land owner supporters have been great, and we currently have multiple locations we have regular access to for training across Central Alabama. We are always interested in searching new properties and open to anyone who might be willing to volunteer their property.
Who are some of the other organizations you train with?
We train regularly with both local and state-wide law enforcement and first responder agencies, as well as with canine search teams from Alabama and surrounding states. We have also conducted multiple training exercises with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) Aviation Division in order to practice inserting and extracting canine teams into areas that would otherwise be difficult to reach without their helicopter.
What is the difference between an air scent dog and one that is tracking or trailing? Can you share the difference in this approach and types of dogs?
Most people have seen a tracking/trailing dog used by police on TV. Usually it is a Bloodhound at the end of a long leash held by an officer. These dogs use their nose to follow where a person has walked fairly precisely. When working these dogs, it is important to know where a person left from so the search dogs can start at that point. Air scent dogs on the other hand do not have to start at the beginning of the trail of the missing person. They use their nose to find the scent traveling through the air of the missing person, usually carried by the wind. These dogs are able to cover much more ground because they work off lead and sometimes even out of sight of their handlers; they are trained to find a person, return to tell their handler, and then lead the handler to the missing individual.
Who hires you? Local? County? Federal?
We will only search at the request of an agency in charge, be that the Sheriff’s Department, Police Department, Fire and Rescue, EMA, etc. Our services are completely free of charge.
Does the organization raise money for its needs? If so how?
Because we are an all-volunteer non-profit organization, we rely heavily on the donations from our community as well as grants from local business and other organizations. If someone would like to help support us financially, they can send a check or give online through our website (RMSDA.org).
Are there other ways to get involved?
Absolutely. It’s important for the search dogs to get the chance to look for new scents; so, we are always looking for people to volunteer their Saturday morning to sit in the woods with a nice book or magazine while the dogs search for them.
Want to keep reading about Red Mountain? Check out Tales from the Trails.