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Last updated: Sun. Aug. 24, 2014 - 12:55 am EDT

Search-and-rescue dogs sharpen skills in city

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It’s a beautiful sunny Saturday morning and Jan Harkner-Abbs stands atop a pile of rubble.

Around her, several other people pick their way through towering piles of concrete chunks, rebar and asphalt.

Though it’s not a setting many would find appealing for the start to a weekend, it’s perfect as far as Harkner-Abbs and the other members of the Indiana Search and Response Team are concerned.

The morning is just another day of training in Fort Wayne for the group of northeast Indiana working dog handlers who tromp through rubble, woods, fields and more as they hone their and their four-legged partners’ skills.

“It’s not a hobby. It’s really serious stuff. It’s not something you take lightly. If you’re going to do it, you need to do it well,” Harkner-Abbs said.

When those skills are needed, someone’s life could be on the line.

Hope for the best

Group member Karen Karrer got involved because of her grandmother’s history of leaving her care facility.

“I wanted to go find Grandma. She was a frequent flier from the nursing home,” Karrer said.

Those searches for her grandmother and many other elderly missing people – often Alzheimer’s patients – are some of the brighter moments in the group’s existence.

Harkner-Abbs said those are some of the most rewarding searches because they often end with the person found safe and returned to his or her family.

“When that happens, you know all the work is worth it,” she said.

Those endings certainly aren’t the norm, though, in search-and-rescue work.

“You hope for the best but the reality is it may not turn out that well,” Harkner-Abbs said.

One of the most macabre moments in memory was the recovery of a 3-year-old girl who had perished with her mother in a house fire.

“My dog found her. She was under 14 inches of ash, and it was packed because everybody was walking on top of her,” Harkner-Abbs recalled of the search through the basement of the collapsed house.

She helped dig the little girl from the ash and then had to take some time to decompress with a stress debriefing – not an unusual step for emergency workers when they encounter something particularly harrowing.

Sometimes it’s not even the missions that are taxing.

Extensive trainings spanning days or weeks take their toll on handlers.

Member Gale St. John recalled when she went to get her dog nationally certified. It was stressful to say the least.

“You’re just going and going and going until dark,” she said.

That stress followed her back to ISART, where St. John said Harkner-Abbs told her to take a couple of weeks away from the group to recover.

The dogs also feel the burden of their work. Maneuvering through heavily wooded areas or rubble piles creates not only hazards from the injury of a fall, but also the chance of getting injured or killed by a piece of the rubble.

There’s also the very real chance that at a building collapse search, there could be particles or contaminants in the air that could kill the dog or handler years down the road.

“You have to look at it from the aspect that … if there is an actual deployment, my dog is very well going to die from it,” Karrer said.

Passionate about dogs

What led the Wisconsin native to lead a group of working dog handlers in northeast Indiana dates back to the late 1960s.

Harkner-Abbs has been training dogs in basic obedience work nearly her entire life.

That soon evolved into higher levels of training and eventually prepping dogs for competitions.

She moved 22 years ago to Indiana and not too long after, she got involved with a fire department in the South Bend area after the chief put out a notice that he needed search-and-rescue dogs accessible in the area.

That group eventually evolved into several smaller factions of working dog handlers, and one of those factions formed the Indiana Search and Response Team, which became a nonprofit group a few years ago.

In addition to being an Orange Township Fire Department member, Harkner-Abbs was still training dogs part-time before she started ISART. Her job as a special education consultant for a four-county area to help schools resolve issues with some students is what pays the bills.

It’s her passion to work with dogs, train them and use them to help find people in distress that keeps her going, though.

Even though she’s barely middle-aged, the toils of climbing through rubble or slogging through a swamp or field are slowly catching up.

“I’m 53 now and I notice a huge difference in my balance and strength,” she said, adding that she’ll keep climbing rubble until she’s no longer physically able.

At that point, she’ll focus on only training the dogs, not working with them but will still probably find time for her husband and adult son.

‘Go any place’

ISART doesn’t seek out its assignments; they come to the group and they come in all varieties.

In one case, the search was for a man who had likely committed suicide but couldn’t be found.

Law enforcement assigned to the case eventually ran out of resources to continue to devote people to the search, but ISART asked to continue on without police.

The group’s members sat down, mapped what had already been done and what could still be done and set out to find the man.

In 30 minutes they had the body.

It was an ending mixed with sorrow and relief for the family and search team members.

“It was so rewarding from the standpoint the family was so grateful we continued to work … the family actually asked us to bring the dogs to the funeral,” Harkner-Abbs said.

Aside from looking for people, part of Harkner-Abbs’ mission with ISART is to make it known just how valuable the group is during an emergency.

Members are certified at the state and national levels, often by trainings hosted by outside agencies.

The key is getting notified as quickly as possible.

Group members don’t care if they get called off for the search. They are more concerned about making sure they’ll be ready to respond when needed and welcome any calls for service.

“Anybody who knows … what our dogs can do, they’ll call. We can go any place,” Harkner-Abbs said.

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