Behind the Scenes with Search And Rescue:
RailRiders interview with CARDA's Mark Herrick and his German Shepherd Pele

A nose is a nose is a nose. But with dogs, its most important sense is smell. "A dog's nose is as important as our eyes are to us," says Dr. Brian Janke, a veterinarian in Rolla, Missouri. "And, usually, the longer the nose, the better the sniffer." That's why dogs are used by law enforcement officials for sniffing out drugs, flammable items or explosives. Because of their olfactory prowess -- a dog's sense of smell is several hundred times more powerful than a human's-- trained canines are also valuable when it comes to finding lost or missing persons. The California Rescue Dog Association (CARDA), established in 1976, is the nation's largest search dog group with 114 certified dog teams scattered throughout the state. RailRiders spoke with one dynamic duo from CARDA -- San Francisco Bay Area  resident Mark Herrick, 51, and his sweet, loyal, and hard-working German Shepherd companion Pele. Working together as a team, they have gone on 15 official searches.


Q: What is your normal day job?


Mark Herrick: I am a sales manager for a large software company that provides Enterprise Resource Management software to medium and large companies.  Our software is used to run a company's operations including manufacturing, distribution, sales, finance, and human resources.  I have been doing this for about 25 years.  It isn't nearly as fulfilling as Search And Rescue (SAR), but it pays the bills. What has always fascinated me about Search And Rescue is that 90% of all search and rescue (SAR) professionals are unpaid. We call ourselves unpaid professionals.  We pay all our own expenses to train and deploy out of our own pocket.


Q: How did Pele first enter your life?


MH:  Pele is a girl!  Her full name is Pele Popo Ahi, which is Hawaiian for Pele's Fire Ball.  We love Hawaii and spend most of our vacation time there.Our first dog was an Akita, a Japanese breed that looks like a small bear.  We loved him so much but Akita's are more like cats and you can't train them to do much or take them places because they can be really aggressive.  We waited a few years before getting another dog and this time we wanted a dog we could easily train and take everywhere. We got Pele from a breeder of German Shepherd dogs in Seattle.  They raise German Shepherd dogs of working lines.  Both Pele's parents were born in Germany and imported to the United States.  There are several major lines of German Shepherd dogs in the world today: American, German Showlines, and Working.  Most of the German Shepherd dogs used in police work, search and rescue, and detection work are from working lines.  The main difference is working dogs are very high energy; the word we use to describe them is "high drive."


Q: How did you get into Search And Rescue?


MH: I got into Search And Rescue because of Pele.  She was a handful as a puppy and it quickly became apparent that she needed a job or she would drive us all crazy.  She destroyed cabinets, baseboards and ripped our kitchen linoleum floor up from the middle!  She would jump up on counters and grab food.  I remember one night we were all exhausted from work and school and had just gotten back from getting takeout.  We heard a crash and ran into the kitchen to see the box of Chinese food scattered all over the floor and her eating it.  She was so pleased with herself.


I am a big fan of Cesar Milan, the "Dog Whisperer" from TV, whose three-step program for balanced dogs is: exercise, discipline, affection.  I prefer to say that discipline is actually structure-- unambiguous and utterly consistent structure. Dogs are very black and white, unlike humans who see all sorts of gray and ambiguity in life.  I believe that humans trying to relate to a dog from the perception that life is gray and there are nuances is what leads to most of the dog behavior problems.  A dog would say, "You let me do it yesterday, so why not today?"  They just can't relate to this.  It drives them crazy and neurotic.


We had to get Pele exercise at least one hour per day, but what she really needed was a job.  We considered some of the more active K9 sports, like Schutzhund, flyball, and agility, but that didn't really appeal to me.


I love the expression, "Think globally, act locally."  I believe that volunteering locally build strong communities.  I used to be a volunteer police officer and still maintained my contacts within my neighborhood police department.  They suggested I contact the local sheriff's department Search And Rescue unit which I did and they referred me to CARDA.  It was just what the doctor ordered for us.  My mentor in CARDA said if there was ever a dog born to do SAR work it was Pele.  She loves it.  Once we became mission-ready with CARDA we also joined our local sheriff's SAR K9 unit.  So we came full circle.  Since Pele started in SAR she has never been destructive again.


Q: How would you describe Pele's personality and temperament?


MH: Pele has an amazing temperament.  She is curious and alert at all times.  She very sweet and friendly and loves people because she is not aggressive at all.  She also has an incredible work ethic.  She loves nothing more than being out in the field searching and going to places with me.


Q: How is she around your family?


MH: She is big part of the family.  And she loves people.  She gets excited whenever we have company and especially when my 17-year old son has his friends over.  They head downstairs to his room to hang and she is right behind them.  My son plays the electric bass guitar in a rock band and she loves to hang out with them when they are playing music.  She really digs loud rock.  It is actually pretty funny.


Q: Does she sleep in your bedroom? On your bed?


MH: No. She is not allowed to sleep on any of our beds.  It is a socialization thing.  Dogs that sleep on their humans' beds can become aggressive and dominate.  She does have her own bed that is right next to my son's bed.  She hangs out with me until it is time for bed, then she heads down to his room for "nite nite."


Q: How is she around other dogs, including CARDA dogs?


MH: Pele is super stable around other dogs.  She is rock-solid and entirely reliable.  She is a super public-relations dog because she is so friendly with adults and kids.  We use her for CARDA demonstrations as much as possible.  She is playful with puppies and is not aggressive at all.  We use her to help other dogs that are fearful or aggressive towards other dogs to help socialize them.


Q: What is the difference between Search And Rescue dogs and K9 police dogs?


MH: Search dogs are just one type of "detection dogs."  These dogs are trained to detect things, which can be anything from contraband to cancer. Search dogs are trained to find people; live and/or deceased.  Some search dogs are trained to find only live subjects, some only deceased, and some are crossed-trained to find both.  Pele is cross-trained for both live and cadaver searches. I should add that there is much controversy about cross-training.  Some people believe in specialization and other believe in generalization. Police dogs are trained to apprehend and subdue evil-doers.  Some are crossed-trained in following tracks and searching for contraband, but in general they specialize in apprehending and subduing a bad guy. Search dogs are conditioned not to bite or bark since we don't want to frighten a missing person.


Q: What was involved in getting both of you "mission-ready" for Search And Rescue operations? Describe the training and testing procedures.


MH: Getting "mission ready" was actually one of the hardest things I have ever done.  It takes at least two years of training, both for the dog and for the human.  We trained at least three times per week for two years. We put in hundreds of hours training in the field and classroom and thousands of miles driving around California.  There is no formal degree for doing this, but it is really as involved and time-consuming as getting a masters degree. Handlers have to learn how to train a search dog as well as how to be good searchers.  We are first and foremost ground searchers that have a specialized "tool" -- which is a hyper-sensitive scent detection dog that augments our own senses.  A dog's smell is 200 times more sensitive than a human's.


Handlers are required to take the following classes and pass a certification test for each skill.  The certification test includes a written test, an oral interview and practical skills demonstration, which includes the following: physical fitness test, first responder first aid and CPR, map, compass and GPS navigation, scent theory, survival, helicopter operations, low angle Rescue, mantracking, crime scene preservation, and radio communications.. Dogs must pass their own set of standards by a demonstration of practical skills: socialization, obedience, agility, swimming, transportation, being around helicopters, problem solving, and search work


Once the handler and dog have passed these minimum standards then they take a series of increasingly more difficult tests which culminate in the "final exam" which is their mission-ready test.  The mission-ready test is a practical exam where the team has to search a 120-acre area in less than four hours and find an unknown number of subjects between one and three.  The number of subjects to be found at the beginning of the test is not known to the team being tested.  The test is very hard.


Q: What are the different kind of searches?


MH: There are two types of search dogs: trailing and area. Trailing dogs are the ones that you see on TV and in the movies.  They are "scent specific."  They start with an article of clothing that belongs to the missing person and they try and pick up the missing person's "trail" or footsteps.  Trailing dogs usually work on leash and drag their handler all over the place.  We sometimes jokingly refer to these handlers as "dirt skiers."  Trailing dogs can be very effective if you know exactly where the missing person was last seen.  They are also really good at ruling out places too, because they can tell if the missing person was not there.


Area dogs are not scent-specific and are trained to find any human scent, live or deceased, in a given area.  Area search dog teams can search an area up to 30 times faster than a human ground team can, and when a life is at risk, speed can make the difference between finding someone alive or deceased. The best analogy is an old war movie on TV with a Navy destroyer looking for a submarine hiding under water.  The destroyer sails up and down inside a box-like grid with its sonar looking for the sub.  Area teams do the same thing, with the handler walking up and down within an area while the dog is "casting" back and forth around the handler smelling for anyone.


Search managers use trailing and area teams together as complementary resources.  And used together, they can cover lots of ground fast.


Q: How has Pele performed in actual (non-training) searches? And where were these searches located, and for what or whom?


MH: SAR is truly a team effort.  Nothing happens without a massive team effort, from planning the search to fielding teams, providing logistics support, medical, communications etc.  And it is easy to focus on who found the missing person, but those teams that don't find them are providing an equally valuable role in being able to tell where the missing person isn't, therefore allowing the search manager to focus teams on high-probability areas. Pele has been on over 15 searches since she became mission-ready two years ago.  She performs very well and thoroughly enjoys it.   These searches have been mostly in the wilderness areas or what they now call urban interfaces.  These included missing hikers, kids or Alzheimer's patients who have wandered off.  We have been out in the Marin Headlands, up in the Sierra's and in downtown Oakland. We don't talk about the details on specific searches.  All of them have personal details that are confidential. Some searches are for people missing under suspicious circumstances where law enforcement is involved-- and any details might be evidence. 


There was one search with a very happy ending.  An elderly person went for a hike in one of the local parks and became lost while disoriented.   The park rangers had been looking for her all day.  The terrain was fairly flat but very thickly wooded with shrubs and trees.  You couldn't see far off the trails in either direction.  The missing hiker ended up less than 20 yards from the trail hidden by thick shrubs.  Pele found her in less than 14 minutes after we deployed.  The elderly woman was cold and tired but alive!  She was asleep when we arrived and Pele woke her up by licking her face.  It was really sweet.  Pele was quite concerned about her.


Q: Have you been involved in any rescue operations-- for example, avalanches, mudslides, earthquakes, plane crashes?


MH: I have not been involved in any of these.  CARDA does have a number of avalanche dogs, but Pele is not one of those since we live at sea level.  Several of my colleagues were deployed to the Challenger Shuttle crash site and to earthquakes around the world.  CARDA is ready to deploy in any major natural disaster.


Q: For someone lost in the woods, say from hiking, what do you recommend he or she do?


MH: The most important thing that you should do is stop and wait for help.  Someone will call SAR and we will find you.  Too many times, people keep moving and only become further lost.  We tell children the mantra, "Sit and Stay."  One of our CARDA members just wrote and published a wonderful children's book called, "I Sit and Stay." Once you stop, the most important thing to do is get out of the elements and build a shelter to stay dry and warm.  The rule of fours is what we use:  four minutes without air, four hours without shelter, four days without water and four weeks without food.  So that is your priority list.  Air, shelter, water and food.  You can live a long time without food.  Also make yourself visible.  Nature abhors right angles so make signs with rocks or stick in right angles.


Q: How much ongoing training do you and Pele do on a weekly or monthly basis? What does this entail?


MH: We train three days per week for about three hours per training session, so we put in about nine to ten hours per week.  CARDA members all take turns going out and hiding. Essentially we are playing an adult game of hide and seek.  The dogs love it and you get a good chance to catch up on your reading. This is a pretty serious avocation for us. 


Q: And how many miles do Pele and you usually cover, and over what kind of terrain?


MH: A single search assignment is about 80 to 100 acres. And depending on the terrain, it takes between  four to six hours to search it carefully.  During that effort, we will typically walk about six to eight miles.  We are pretty pooped after that and need to come back to search base for rest and food.  We encounter a huge variety of terrain from flat to ground so steep that we are forced to using climbing gear and have to lift the dogs up and over obstacles.  If the search is deep in the backcountry we are frequently deployed from a helicopter and search back to a landing zone for pickup.  Some backcountry teams are trained and prepared to spend several days searching without resupply.


Q: What are Pele's favorite foods or treats?


MH: Pele hates biscuits.  She is a meat and cheese girl.  But what really gets her revved up is playing with a tennis ball.  She will play fetch for as long as I will throw it.  I usually get tired way before she does.


Q: What kind of rewards do you give her when she finds something?


MH: We play fetch with the ball as her reward.  She will do just about anything for a fetch session.


Q: Which are the best breeds for Search And Rescue?  And why do you see bloodhounds used in prison movies hunting down escaped prisoners, but not necessarily used for Search And Rescue?


MH: You are going to get me in trouble with that question.  This is like arguing religion. Some people have deeply held convictions about their breeds.  I don't believe there is a best breed for SAR.  What is important is that the dog is athletic and wants to work. I happen to love German Shepherd dogs. I have heard the saying that a German Shepherd is not the best dog in any one thing but is second best in all things.  I kind of agree with that. Hounds are awesome and have amazing noses.  They will follow a trail til they drop.  But they aren't the smartest.  They do better with tracking and that is why you see them in the movies. We have lots of Labs and Golden Retrievers.  And one or two Dalmatians, Visleaus and even Wiemeraners.


Q: Were are CARDA teams used at the World Trade Center site following 9/11?


MH: CARDA was not called by FEMA to provide mutual aid at the Trade Center.  There were many teams called from the East Coast and Midwest.  FEMA tries to use resources close to the disaster.


Q: Do you work with FEMA which hasn't been getting such great press ever since Katrina?


MH: CARDA is part of California's Office of Emergency Services [OES], which is our state version of FEMA, and is ready to assist FEMA if they call us.  FEMA and OES did a super job recently in the Southern California fires.  FEMA got a lot of bad press from Katrina but much of that was unfair and unfounded and due to media sensationalism.  What caught people's attention were the few bad apples at the top of the management chain.  Katrina was biblical in proportion.  It is just staggering what happened.  Emergency Management teams on the ground did herculean work.  Those men and women are true heroes.


Q: How many search and rescue dogs are there in the U.S.? Are there other similar organizations around the nation?


MH: CARDA has 114 mission-ready teams.  There are three other similar volunteer K9 and SAR organizations in California, but CARDA is by far the largest and best known. CARDA is also one of the largest in the United States. There are about 2,000 mission-ready teams across the  country.  Just about every state has a similar organization.  And these teams are all volunteers.


Q: What was the most interesting thing(s) that ever happened to you and Pele during a search operation?


MH: Every search is really interesting.  No two searches are the same and I learn something new every single time.  I love it.  It is really fulfilling to find a person alive or provide closure to a grieving family.  Our motto in SAR is, "So that others may live." What is really the most amazing thing though are the dedicated unpaid professionals who volunteer their time anytime no matter how dark and funky it is outside to save someone else.  When the pager goes off and it is dark and stormy, they just get up and go.  It is just so amazing to be around such giving, generous and  people. It just blows my mind and I feel incredibly lucky to be part of such a community. Everyone of these people are volunteers who dedicate their time to this cause and pay all their own expenses. Everyone.  And that is the most interesting thing.


Q: Finally, what do you love most about RailRiders clothing?


MH: I like the features of the Versa-Tac pants  They are very similar to  Battle Dress Uniforms or BDUs. We carry lots of gear with us in the field: radios, GPS, maps and compasses, first aid supplies, food and water.  We wear a pack and chest harness, but I need extra pockets on my pants for Pele's stuff like her leash, treats and her tennis balls.  The pant's cargo pocket is also super handy to carry a water bottle or two. I need easy access pockets.  The pants are made of lightweight, fast-drying fabric that compress and pack nicely.  I am pretty impressed with their durability too.  They can take a lot of punishment and not rip.  We are frequently crawling on our hands and knees through thick Manzanita shrubs which are really sharp, as well as hopping over barbed wire fences. While  cotton/poly ripstop BDUs are made mostly with cotton, the Versa-Tacs are not; they are made entirely with synthetic material. There is an expression that cotton kills.  When we deploy in the wilderness getting wet is a killer.  You lose heat 20 times faster if you are wet.  So we need clothes that dry quickly.  The Versa-Tac pants will dry in less than 15 minutes.  This is a life-saver.


For more information about CARDA, go