Southwestern High School student Elizabeth Hall pets a search dog named Leadoff during a presentation at the school on Friday. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie/
Southwestern High School student Elizabeth Hall pets a search dog named Leadoff during a presentation at the school on Friday. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie/
Last year, Annette Compton, rescued her dog, Etta, from a kennel. The bloodhound was about to be put down before Compton met and adopted her.

Now, Compton and her rescue dog spend their time rescuing others. They joined the Jefferson County (Ky.) Search Dog Association (JCSDA,) a group that assists during search and rescue operations.

The volunteer group gave a presentation at Southwestern High School on Friday. Greg Schneider, the school's agriculture teacher, brought the group in for his animal science and fundamentals of agriculture classes.

"We try to get out to the community for these as much as we can," Compton said. "We want the community to know who we are and that they can call us."

Both the dogs and their handlers go through extensive training to become search and rescue certified. Handlers go through a minimum of 128 hours of specialized training. Compton said it takes up to two years of intense training before a dog becomes consistent with its tracking behaviors.

Compton said the dogs have to start by passing the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen test to become a search dog.

The test evaluates several trained behaviors including how well a dog follows a sit or down command to its ability to walk through a crowd without getting distracted.

"Our dogs have to be able to be controlled under any situation," she said. "Our dogs are tested for aggression. If they show any sign of aggression, they're off the team."

The JCSDA is based out of Louisville, but it can be deployed to any area within 100 miles of the city.

When deployed, Compton said the team is completely self sustainable for up to 72 hours. That lets the handlers and the dogs track more efficiently.

Gary Thompson, one of the other presenters, said the long hours can be difficult, especially when carrying the extra required equipment.

Thompson said it can be upwards of 20 pounds of extra gear. That's why they train with it on.

"No sense in getting out there and not being used to the weight," he said.

Compton said the extra weight and sometimes long hours don't bother her, because she feels like the team makes a difference.

"This really is the best volunteer job," she said.

The science of smell

There are two kinds of search dogs: air-search and ground-search.

Etta, being a bloodhound, is a ground-search dog.

"The bloodhound relies strictly on its nose. It was bred purely for its nose," Compton said.

"It is simply a tracking machine."

Compton said the only mammal with a better nose than a bloodhound is a grizzly bear.

Air-search dogs track differently. Where a ground-search dog will follow the exact path of the person being tracked, the air-search dog depends on other senses, in combination with their sense of smell to track. Which means they don't have to directly follow the tracks of whomever they're searching for to find them.

"They depend on all of their senses. They depend on it all. An air-scent dog will tip its head up and it can catch a scent that might be floating in the air," Compton said.

The different methods of search make the two dogs useful in different situations. A missing person might be better served by a ground-search dog while searching through a disaster area for survivors might be better served by an air-search dog.

To contact the JCSDA, call (502) 704-8880. They are looking for volunteers and accept donations.