Keitha Meyer joined the U.S. Army right out of high school with a goal of being a canine handler in the military police. The military had other ideas, as she was in the last company of the Women’s Army Corps, destined to secretarial duties and military post office work from 1977-1985 with two deployments to South Korea.
As a child, Meyer remembers dogs as an ongoing part of her life in the Miami Valley. Tommy, an Airedale who was with her for 10 years, was “ the one that got my love for dogs going.” He was her 4-H project and was so intelligent and so well-trained that in 1976 he won first place in his class at the Miami County Fair, was the highest-scoring Airedale Terrier, and the highest-scoring Dog of the Day with 198.5 points out of a possible 200.
Fast forward to 2007 (Meyer retired from the post office in 2013), when Meyer determined it was time for another Airedale. She went to Pet Finders online and discovered Zeeke, a German Shepherd who had “big ears and a face that told me I had to have him.” In the ad, Zeeke was described as a dog who loved people, had an even temperament and got along well with other dogs and cats.
Meyers says, “They lied, misrepresented him. He was aggressive and didn’t like people, dogs, or cats.” So it was off to the Echo Hills Kennel Club, where “we learned basic obedience. I learned how to socialize him as he was learning obedience.”
Zeeke passed the tests for Companion Dog One, but failed the tests for Companion Dog Two, which required he lie down for five minutes with his handler out of the building. So Meyer took him to Julie and Joe Potter’s Buckeye Search and Rescue Group, where they trained for four years and after 18 months, Zeeke became a certified trailing dog.
It was then off to the Miami County Animal Shelter, where Meyer adopted Bones, a purebred German Shepherd who had been starved and abused. At 2 years old, he weighed 53 pounds when he should have weighed 70. Bones was trained as a cadaver dog, learning to detect the scent of decomposition. When Meyer donated blood, she had extra vials drawn for Bones’ training and used human placentas as well. Bones was schooled at Buckeye Search and Rescue Group and had a short training stint at American Patriot Canine in Rhode Island.
When Zeeke was retired at age 10 because of health issues, he experienced anxiety attacks, and his buddy Bones became his caretaker. It was then time for new dogs, and Brandi and Jason Russell stepped up to the plate in October 2013 and donated Eva to Keitha and Spirit to her sister. Both animals are purebred German Shepherds, seven weeks old at the time of the gift.
Eva, a short-coat, is now certified in trailing and land cadaver, and in April 2018 is going for training in water cadaver. Spirit, a long-coat, is certified in trailing, land cadaver, and area search.
Just as with adults, continuing education is a must for search and rescue dogs, and Eva and Spirit have their training updated weekly for 60-minute periods. Volunteers, in the form of people, are necessary for the training. Volunteers must be 18 or older, physically fit, able to navigate rough terrain for a quarter to half-mile, cross water, and sit in the woods for up to an hour.
The trail must set for 15-45 minutes before the dog can commence the search. Rain and snow and all kinds of inclement weather are a part of the training of these ALL SAR Canines which must be recertified annually. The only days off are Christmas and New Year’s.
ALL SAR Canines can respond to needs in a five-county area which includes Miami, Clark, Darke, Champaign, and Shelby counties. ALL SAR Canines has 10 handlers and three flankers, and Meyer reports, “Dogs are smart and tend to advance more rapidly than handlers.” At times, handler don’t read their dog’s body language, and flankers who walk behind handlers are there to watch for danger zones such as cliffs and road crossings, pick up on clues the handler or dog has missed and monitor via GPS. to track where the team is.
After a recent stint for five team members and their dogs in trail, land cadaver, and water cadaver training in Pearl River, Louisiana, Meyer bought a jon boat (14 feet, flat bottom with a platform for the dog at the front of the boat).
Her teams of people and dogs are rarely called into service, which is a good thing, but they must always be prepared. One example Meyer detailed was an Amber alert issued for a 4-year-old girl whose grandmother, under the influence of drugs, was babysitting while the child’s mother worked third shift. The child was found safe, but the grandmother was charged with child endangerment and possessing drug paraphernalia.
Another example was a cadaver search in a locale where a farmer shot and killed a man who had been digging ginseng on his property. The farmer moved the decaying body to a second location and piled mulch on it, but left an arm behind at the first location. The farmer ended up with a prison sentence.
Meyer has a daughter who is “not the least bit interested in dogs,” but a grandson, Zayzian, 8, who “takes after his grandma and likes to hide for the dogs to find.” So the torch is passed.
Meyer welcomes calls from those in the Miami Valley who would like to volunteer to play “hide-and-seek” with the service dogs of ALL SAR Canines at (937) 541-9485.
Vivian Blevins is a consultant for the Training Solutions Group Inc. who teaches courses in writing and literature for major telecom company employees. Reach her at (937) 778-3815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.