Search and rescue: Man and his dogs help those in crisis

LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) — When disaster strikes around the world, Lynchburg resident Ron Sanders often arrives on the scene in a matter of hours with his Labrador, Pryse, in tow.

The duo is part of a niche group of people who volunteer their time and skill set to find survivors in the wake of mayhem, whether it be an earthquake, flood or hurricane. They are dispatched regionally with the Virginia Search and Rescue Dog Association and internationally with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The latter allowed him to assist with searches in disaster zones following hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Sandy, as well as the earthquakes in Haiti, Japan and Nepal.

“We’re not the ones really known about,” Sanders said in a recent interview.

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The 56-year-old joked he’s the “dope on the end of the rope,” and that Pryse does the real work during searches. But Sanders’ role in the process is rooted more in science than in scent.

“There’s a methodology to it to clear the area,” he said.

Take, for example, the case of a missing autistic teen earlier this month in Bedford County.

Sanders was one of dozens of searchers from several volunteer organizations that descended on the area just hours after the boy was reported missing. Using a two-and-a-half-mile ring as their guide, the group worked methodically to make sure the boy wasn’t near water — a place to which he said autistic people often are drawn.

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Sanders used baby powder during the search to check wind direction so he could guide Pryse’s snout in the right direction. Scent travels in a cone-shape, he said, so setting up his dog properly is a key part of exhausting any given search area.

“It’s not just a shot in the dark, (there) really is some science based on it,” he said.

Sanders got started in the search and rescue field about 15 years ago while working at the Lynchburg Fire Department. He attended a conference in Charlottesville around that time and met Heidi Yamaguchi, a world-renowned dog handler and trainer who took Sanders under her wing.

“As time went on, she kind of adopted me and mentored me,” Sanders said.

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But he didn’t know she was terminally ill. One of her last wishes was for Sanders to finish training her Belgian Malinois, Ondo. Sanders later got another dog, a Belgian Malinois-shepherd mix.

“I got Tomo as a little puppy, and I called her family and asked them to name him. So they named him Tomo, which, in Japanese, means ‘friend,'” Sanders said.

His journey seemed to come full-circle when he and Tomo went to Japan to help search for survivors of the earthquake and tsunami.

“I thought it was kind of cool that then I ended up going to Japan, where her home was,” he said.

Tammy Sage, executive assistant at the fire department, recently recalled how well-trained both dogs were when Sanders brought them to the fire department years ago.

“I’ll never forget the first time he brought the dog here,” Sage said in a phone interview, explaining that Sanders left the pup in the fire department lobby and asked people to try to get him to move while he walked around the building.

“We tried to coax the dog,” Sage said, laughing. “It’s like he was deaf to everything we were saying. He definitely wanted to please Ron.”

She also noted how Sanders — who retired in 2013 — always stayed humble about his volunteering, despite the countless hours and money that went into the training process and travel.

“But you can just tell that he’s just passionate about what he does with the dogs, and the dogs, as well,” Sage said. “He really has a God-given talent to train those dogs and do what he does.”

A new pup wriggled her way into Sanders’ life about a month ago. Her name is Palau, a 16-month-old Labrador who Sanders says is a natural human remains, or HR, dog. He showed off a video of Palau gracefully leaping across building debris as part of a training exercise for a building collapse.

Sanders explained the importance of having dogs that can seek out the living rather than the dead in search situations.

“So when a building collapses, the expectation is there’s going to be people that die. So if we were to send a dog that did both, that dog would alert and then the guys would spend, sometimes it can be hours to a day, digging that person out. And then they would have perished, and you would have wasted that valuable first bit of time,” he said. “So instead, Pryse is trained to ignore the HR scent and just alert on the live human scent.”

Sanders stressed the value of having volunteers who dedicate their time to staying up-to-date on the latest training and methodology, something he said is relatively unknown by the general public.

“They’re just there to help,” Sanders said. “It’s a really good community of people that really care about taking care of other people.”