SEDRO-WOOLLEY — While the classrooms at Sedro-Woolley High School this week are void of traditional students, learning is still taking place — albeit by students with four legs, wagging tails and keen noses.
In one classroom, BellaRose, an English shepherd, sniffed from corner to corner, looking for the source of a smell detectable only to her.
“Seek,” said BellaRose’s trainer, Angelyn Gates.
As BellaRose came close to what she deemed to be the source of the smell — a glass jar with holes in the metal lid hidden in a can on top of a table — she stopped and sat down, signaling the completion of her mission.
“This is a game to them,” said Gates, team leader for Skagit County K9 Search and Rescue. “They love to play this game. People say they’re working dogs, but in actuality, they’re playing.”
This week, 17 K9 search and rescue teams from throughout the country have converged in Skagit County for five days of training.
In her 11 years of working with K9 search and rescue teams, Gates said she has attended trainings throughout the country. This week, though, she wanted to bring a training to Skagit County for other regional dog handlers.
At Rasar State Park, some of the dogs and their handlers were learning about “trailing,” a technique where dogs are used to help locate missing people by looking for their scents, said Jonni Joyce, a master K9 search and rescue dog trainer from Wyoming who was leading one of the two camps this week.
“You remember Pig Pen from Snoopy? That’s what we all are to them,” Joyce said.
At the high school, 11 dogs were working on something new: human remains detection.
“Dogs have been finding dead bodies at least since the 70s,” Joyce said. “There’s actually a body of science around this.”
Dogs trained in human remains detection are taught to key in on the scent of gasses emitted by a decaying body, or, in this case, placentas in various stages of decomposition stored in glass jars.
“This is the recovery part,” Joyce said.
While it might seem macabre to some, sometimes it’s the last — but necessary — resort, she said.
“If you only train dogs to find people who are alive, then you no longer have that resource,” Gates said. “There’s a need for that, unfortunately, sometimes.”
Two dogs on the Skagit County K9 Search and Rescue team participated in the training, Gates said.
She and BellaRose learned human remains detection techniques, while beagle DaisyMae and her handler, search and rescue volunteer Patti Stormont, learned how to trail.
“Once you get that bond with a dog, it’s a special bond,” Gates said.
In Washington, search and rescue teams, including K9 teams, are generally made up of volunteers who work under the umbrella of their local sheriff’s offices.
In Skagit County, three law enforcement agencies, including the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office, have K9 units. Generally, however, those dogs are not trained to do the things BellaRose and DaisyMae are.
“That’s the only thing we do, is search for people,” Gates said. “Hopefully they’re alive, but sometimes they’re not.”
Gates said she re-started the Skagit County K9 Search and Rescue Team about three years ago.
“It’s highly valuable,” Skagit County Undersheriff Chad Clark said. “It’s so important to have them point us in the right direction, because now we have an idea where to go. They’re really good at it.”
In the past, Clark said, the Sheriff’s Office and search and rescue volunteers have been able to utilize dogs trained in human remains detection on boats if deputies are looking for a body in the water.
“Without the dogs, we’re totally useless,” he said. “We’re nowhere near as effective as we are with the dogs.”
Some dogs will be trained at both trailing and human remains detection, Gates said.
“It’s amazing that they can do this,” she said.
Having both skills makes a team more valuable to its local sheriff’s office, which is the Skagit County group’s goal this week.
“It’s a way to give back to the community,” Gates said. “Doing the K9s is a lifestyle. I love dogs, I might as well do something with my dog that helps the community.”