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Indiana Search-Response Team dogs have noses for job

– A small child wanders away from his backyard into a corn field.

With dusk closing in, his mother clambers through row after row of 7-foot-tall stalks. She screams his name over and over with no response.

When she frantically calls 911 – a special force is called to the scene.

The Indiana Search and Response Team, based in Wawaka, is made up of 12 volunteer dog handlers, many of them trained officials such as police officers and firefighters. Steuben County has two of the three bloodhounds on the team – Orland Town Marshal Brooke Norton’s Beck and Angola Police Department dispatcher Ed Ralston’s Samson. Other dogs used for searches and official duty include German shepherds, border collies and a cattle dog, owned by people from 11 counties in northeastern Indiana who respond as part of the Indiana Department of Homeland Security’s District 3.

They participate in 30-35 searches a year, mainly within Indiana but as far away as Texas, said Jan Harkner-Abbs, ISRT CEO. Abbs operates a full-scale training center at her Noble County home. Other training sites are in Fort Wayne, at Camp Atterbury in Indianapolis and Muscatatuck Urban Training Center.

Along with training with the dogs – which includes at least 16 hours a month – handlers must have basic communication, medical, firearms and other certifications.

“It’s nice to have multiple handlers, because we’re all volunteer,” Abbs told The News-Sun. “We are actually looking for more.”

Those interested may contact her at

Multiple dogs are called to a scene along with other official presence for safety of the trackers while they are focused on their job.

“To really cover it, it’s going to take a lot of people,” said Abbs. “Get the resources called in immediately.”

Sometimes they load up and head toward a scene only to get called off because the person was found, said Norton, but they err on the side of extra manpower.

“Everybody works together really well,” said Abbs.

Dog handlers must be independent and organized, Abbs said – able to keep up with training and documentation. Candidates should be in good health and physically fit.

Norton said it can be a physical challenge “when you’re running through woods and soybean fields and corn fields.”

The dogs also are trained in agility.

“They may have to go through rubble. They may have to cross a log in a creek,” said Abbs. “They have to conquer fears, also.”

Among the training equipment on her 40-acre property in Wawaka are ladders the dogs have to learn to climb. The training there is offered free of charge to participants, said Abbs, who has worked in education for 30 years and is a sensory consultant for the Northeast Indiana Special Education Cooperative as well as the chief of training for Orange Township Fire Department.

“It’s constant learning,” said Abbs. “Every dog is different. Every handler is different.”

To keep Beck up to snuff, Norton takes him to playgrounds such as Friendship Park in Angola, where he can climb up and through things.

“I love it,” said Norton. “I like to learn new things.”

She and Beck trained for 11 months before he was ready for service. He has a crate in her patrol vehicle and a bed in her office. His equipment is always set out and ready to go.

Ralston, who adopted Samson from the Steuben County Humane Society shelter last July, trained for about 14 months before receiving his Level 1 Man Trailer certification just a couple of weeks ago. He plans to receive his Level 2 certification in the next six months, then begin to work on more difficult lessons, such as urban tracking where the dogs find scents on concrete and asphalt.

“I think there was a need in our community,” said Ralston, who extolled Abbs’ expertise. She has been a dog trainer since 1983, having developed a love for it at age 7 in 4-H.

“She’s my dog whisperer,” said Norton, who got Beck as a puppy a year and a half ago. He was purchased with a $3,000 private donation that also covered equipment such as a global positioning system, radios, lines and crates. Beck even has a bulletproof vest.

Norton got him as a puppy, she said, so he would become attached to her, and he is a member of her family. Though they are tenacious and prone to run, Ralston described the hounds as “sweet” and “pleasant.”

“He’s going to find you and give you a big kiss,” Norton said.

Bloodhounds are people trackers, superb at finding a trail and sticking to it until the subject is found. Unlike other dogs, bloodhounds have scent discrimination. They are given clothing or other items used by the person, and they will search for only that scent.

“You could track somebody into a crowd,” said Ralston. “It’s amazing what these dogs can do.”

Beck helped find a missing Bronson, Mich., man in late July. He had been gone for 2 1/2 days, and the search had been extensive. With Karen Karrer, a former Fort Wayne firefighter who has the third bloodhound on the ISTA team, Norton and Beck went to the search area at 6 a.m. The weather had been hot and the morning cool could “push the scent back to the ground. It was wetter,” said Norton.

Using pointers from lost-person behavior training, Karrer began to look more closely when the dogs homed in on a smell. Lost person behavior used data from past searches to define traits for age groups – a 1- to 5-year-old, for example, is generally found within a mile radius of where he was last seen.

They found the body of 48-year-old Thomas Miller in a retention pond near his home. He had gone looking for his Jack Russel terrier, which was located lost and hungry by searchers.

“I had been there the whole day before,” said Norton. “I know we gave the family closure.”

While she’s been on several searches, Norton said she has yet to run one for the Orland Police Department

“She could be used more than she is,” Norton said. Beck is a police officer; the only K9 on the ISRT. She has also been trained in drug searches, building clearing and officer protection. Polly German is Beck’s backup handler, and Orland Deputy Kenny Steele travels with her, too.

“If she head checks twice to one side, he knows to watch that side,” said Norton. Searches can become dangerous; Abbs described a scene where searchers were called on a suicide-risk report, and the subject came walking out of the woods agitated, with a gun in his hand.

Those who put their own time and money into the team do so to help others, despite the risks and difficulties it presents. They are a unique group, and when a loved one is lost, they are friends and saviors.


Information from: The News-Sun