MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Every Sunday morning, the volunteers of Northstar Search and Rescue get together to train for an important mission.
The volunteers and their companions — nationally certified search and rescue K9s — help law enforcement find missing people across Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“It can be from Alzheimer’s to kids who are autistic to hunters missing in the woods,” chief of Northstar Search and Rescue Diane Stefanick said.
When the teams are called on, the dogs are taken to the last known location of the missing person and given an object bearing that person’s scent. The K9 will then work to track the missing person based off the scent of skin cells that they may have been discarded.
The team trains countless hours for these scenarios so that the dogs know what to do when the call comes.
“We use a scent article for the dog to smell, something that person has touched,” deputy chief of Northstar Ross Butterfield said. “Those dogs are able to scent and track over long distances for a long period of time.”
The rescue dogs are from working-dog blood lines, so the drive to perform is bred into them. K9s can cover a search area akin to having 30 search and rescue volunteers, and they have the ability to track that scent for miles. When the dog successfully finds the missing person, she’s rewarded with her favorite treat or toy.
“They just love the game — and it’s a game to them,” Stefanick said.
More than half of the K9s also know how to track remains — an important skill that’s able to bring some closure to victims’ families.
“It’s an amazing feeling to be able to give a family closure, just so they can kind of piece together what happened if they don’t come home alive,” Butterfield said. “For us, just bringing them home is what is important to us.”
Every K9 handler is a volunteer, and the Northstar organization operates as a nonprofit. The volunteers use their own time and money on equipment, certifications and training with one common goal: to bring the missing home.
“It is very rewarding,” handler Julie Shomin said. “It is a lot of fun. It takes a lot of time, a lot of patience, a lot of practice, but we have a really good team and a lot of supportive people. We kind of look at each other when we work, and that’s the best part of it: We are a team, and I trust him and he trusts me, and that’s what makes it work.”
If you would like to donate, visit Northstar’s website.