Meet SAR and Chemical-Biological Detection Golden Retriever Austin

imageWhen the AKC has announced the winners of the first Awards for Canine Excellence (ACE) in 2000, Golden Retriever Austin, owned by Officer Jim Minton, of Austin, Texas, was their Search and Rescue recipient.

A classic Cinderella story: A bedraggled stray is turned in to the Greater Houston Golden Retriever Club's rescue program,  and, after a few twists of fate, becomes an honored search-and-rescue dog. Austin's inspiring story culminates in his work at the site of the Texas A&M bonfire collapse that killed 12 people and injured 27 others.

According to his handler, Officer Jim Minton, Austin is one important working Golden.

Austin has been on overseas assignments three times and one trip involved us being evacuated out of the region by the U. S. Customs and DEA air wing. This was after thugs had placed a $30,000 price tag on Austin to kill or kidnap him. This is nothing unusual. Drug dogs working the border often face the very same threat.

Austin is certified  in Tracking, Cadaver, and Chemical-Biological Detection. After Jim retired from the Austin Police Department, where Austin was on the job from 1999 to 2004, he and Austin began working at the Federal Level specializing in Chemical-Biological Detection. Jim Minton, a Senior Law Enforcement K-9 Handler/Instructor and Senior K-9 Chemical-Biological Specialist for U.S. Govt. and U.S. Military Response only, additionally designed the K-9 Chem-Bio Program for Signature Science LLC, a major federal contract holder. 


Austin, Austin's Search and Rescue K-9
The Scientific Life of a Police K-9

Part of a regular police dog's job is to be ready to attack, subdue and hold a suspected criminal. Even though these dogs are superbly trained and obedient, their aggressive spirit makes them unsuitable for search and rescue work in which an innocent person, sometimes a child, needs help and comforting. That's why the Austin Police Department has a special search and rescue dog named Austin.

Austin is a three-year-old golden retriever. K-9 Austin is a special dog with a special story. Austin himself was found and rescued as a puppy from the woods east of Houston, Texas, by hunters. He was then turned over to the Greater Houston Golden Retriever Club's rescue program, where Texas Hearing and Service Dogs purchased him and provided testing and training before donating him to APD in January 1999. Austin has since been trained to rescue people. On October 28, 2000 Mayor Kirk Watson proclaimed that date "K-9 Austin Day" for the City of Austin. On November 11, 2000 Austin was inducted into the Texas Animal Hall of Fame. On December 1, 2000 Austin was awarded the United States Search and Rescue Dog of the Year award by the American Kennel Club.

imageResearch into the search and rescue dog project lasted approximately six months. Austin was trained in obedience using operant conditioning, a method where positive reinforcement is applied. Using operant conditioning, the trainer ignores the wrong response and rewards the correct one. This is the same method that Sea World has successfully used to train its water creatures-from sea otters to killer whales-to perform their stunts on command. Photo of Officer Minton and Austin Austin's handler, Officer Jim Minton, spent considerable time observing these training methods at Sea World facilities in Orlando, Florida, and in San Antonio, Texas, as well as at the Texas Hearing and Service Dogs training facility in Houston, Texas.

Austin is currently certified in advanced tracking, area search, disaster search, evidence search, cadaver search and air operations. He is trained to search for missing children and adults. This includes missing aircraft and crash victims, missing Alzheimer's patients, missing hunters and lost hikers and climbers. The K-9 team can also be lowered into a high angle, hazardous terrain environment by helicopter. Austin's friendly temperament makes him ideally suited to conduct demonstrations at schools, universities, hospitals, public events, and local business groups upon request and approval.

When airline travel is required for training, or when other government agencies request his assistance out of town, Austin is allowed to ride in the passenger cabin with Officer Minton. The Federal Aviation Administration has regulations that govern service dogs and air travel, permitting these arrangements.

Austin's hobbies include swimming, playing ball, flying, mountain climbing, walking/jogging the hike and bike trail on Town Lake near downtown Austin, and playing tug-a-war with other dogs.

The Race against Time
Police dogs play a vital role in search and rescue. A dog's ultra sensitive hearing, night vision, and keen sense of smell have proven to be invaluable when locating missing persons.

A search dog's success stems from the fact that every human being has a smell-not a smell detectable by other human beings, but one discernable by animals.

How the animal detects this scent is dependent upon the training it has had in trailing, tracking, or in air-scent techniques. By following scent, search dogs are able to locate missing persons even when they are hidden from view.

Experts estimate that a single search and rescue dog with its handler can be as effective as 20 to 30 trained human searchers in locating missing persons in a given period of time. Because of their extraordinary abilities, dogs are often able to reduce the search time, thereby increasing the chances that the person will be found alive.

imagePolice Search Dogs in Action

Tracking dogs are trained to locate specific individuals by following the scent left from the particles that have drifted from the body to the ground and surrounding vegetation. All humans, whether alive or deceased, constantly emit microscopic particles bearing human scent. Wherever a person goes, whether sitting, standing, walking, running, or even swimming, he or she sheds thousands of minute particles of skin called rafts. As rafts of skin fall off a person, they come into contact with the surrounding area. They may fall onto nearby plants, onto the pavement or sidewalk, or may be rubbed off onto a nearby wall. Again, this is another form of trail for the dog to follow. Thousands of these particles can become airborne and are carried by the wind for considerable distances. The air-scenting search and rescue dog is trained to locate the scent of any human in a specific area. The dog is not restricted to the missing person's track and can search long after the track is obliterated. Tracking dogs are particularly effective when they have an item of clothing, worn and unwashed, or an object the person has recently handled that is untouched by others. The dogs can then pursue the trail and often indicate the direction of travel, sometimes allowing an air or ground support vehicle to precede the police search dog team in the same direction. It is also possible that these dogs can pick up a scent without an article.

When looking closely at the inner structure of the dog's nose, the area on each side of the nasal septum is a maze of tiny structures called the turbinate bones. These scroll-like passages are covered on both sides with membranes that detect odor. This area of the dog's nose, the area where the odors are first detected, is many times larger and more effective than that of a human.

The dog also has a gland in the roof of the mouth, between the upper canine teeth, called the vomeronasal gland. This gland is connected to the olfactory portion of the dog's brain and has the ability to detect odor, which, in fact, the dog actually tastes, such as with bloodhounds. In police dog applications it helps the dog to track a fresh scent very rapidly by taking odor in through the mouth. When the dog gets close to a target, the dog lifts his head and begins to work the odor through his mouth. This is a strong indicator to the handler that the desired target is nearby and a sign that the handler should prepare for a possible rescue.
Because these dogs scan the air current for human scent-any human scent-in a particular area, they can effectively search for an unidentified number of missing persons, such as in the aftermath of an earthquake, tornado or other disaster such as the Oklahoma City bombing.

Many police search dogs have been trained in both search techniques. All police search dog teams are best called early in the search but can still be used effectively days or weeks afterward. They can work in various situations and surroundings in dense brush, high grass, in the woods, on the water, in rock and mud slides, in floods and in all types of weather.

Many Breeds Can Be Trained
Dogs selected for the rigorous training involved in search and rescue techniques come from a variety of breeds. Some of the most common dog breeds found in police search and rescue work are golden retrievers, German shepherds, black Labradors, yellow Labradors.

The dogs are chosen for their intelligence, strength, size, obedience, eagerness, temperament, and gentleness. Sometimes, at the end of a search, a police search dog will be found licking the face of the missing person, welcoming him or her back to civilization.

After the training is completed, a police search dog is often valued at an amount of $25,000 or more, depending on the specific type of training.

The bulk of Austin's training was conducted by Officer Phillip Paris of the Georgetown, Texas, Police Department K-9 unit. Officer Paris is known throughout Central Texas for his expertise in animal behavior, specifically police K-9 tracking and search. He was instrumental in the certification of Austin in each category, including advanced tracking certification.

imageHealth and Safety of a Police Search Dog
The care and safety of a police search and rescue dog is a number one priority with handlers. The animal is normally a valued member of the officer's family and is loved and cared for like a child. The police search dog is owned and maintained by the City of Austin. When not on duty, the canine lives with the handler. And in fact, it is common that the animal can often be found sleeping at the foot of a bed occupied by the handler. An extremely special bond is developed during training and throughout the work environment. The handler must also know how to maintain life support of a police search dog and be able to carry the appropriate medical supplies in the event the animal itself becomes a victim. The officer becomes the lifeline for the dog and is trained in advanced canine emergency medicine. K-9 Austin receives frequent medical checks and is provided an ample supply of high quality dog food and treats designed for the working dog.

The vehicle the Austin Police Search and Rescue dog occupies has been modified with the dog's safety and comfort in mind. The rear passenger seat has been removed and a flat heavy grade aluminum plate installed with insulation between the floor of the car and the plate. This allows the modified floor to stay cool and not transmit radiant heat from the floorboard. The flooring is then coated with a substance used on aircraft called "wing walk." This is a paint that contains a thick gritty substance similar to sand. Once dry, it provides traction for the dog. The dog is then able to ride standing up or lying down. The vehicle is also equipped with a separator cage complete with steel supports to maintain the shape of the vehicle in the event of a major collision. The cage separating the front and rear passenger area of the car allows the dog to move to the front of the car for maximum air conditioning comfort. The vehicle is equipped with an onboard computer system that can monitor the temperature of the vehicle, detect smoke, and carbon monoxide. In the event the computer detects a problem it will sound an alarm, automatically roll down the windows, and with the integrated paging system, will page the handler to return to the vehicle. The vehicle is also equipped with a UHF and long range VHS radio with an onboard GPS system.



K-9 Chemical-Biological-Radiological-Nuclear Detection
By Jim Minton, Senior Law Enforcement K-9 Instructor

National Needs
Since the incidents effecting the nation in September 2001, the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, state health departments, local and federal emergency response organizations, corporate America, and the American public at large have elevated concerns of the threat of terrorist use of chemical and biological agents. Since this time, canines have been trained to detect signatures/scents related to specific chemical and biological agents. These signatures are indicative of nerve and blister agents, and botulinum toxin. The canines are also trained to seek out anthrax and ricin. These signatures are either precursors, degradation products, or the agents themselves. Signature Science has specifically, selected these scents because they pose the highest risk to our nation. 

imageMerging chemical and biological detection trained canines with conventional and other advanced detection technologies provides capabilities beyond the limits of any other current instrumentation. Some of these technologies are:

Modified canine tracking harness
Live television / audio / video feed with infrared lighting
GPS (Global Positioning System)
Radiation / nuclear detection devices
Air sampling device
Strobe lights for canine recognition

To meet the challenge discussed above, Signature Science has developed training methodologies and aides that allow us to train canines to detect signatures related to chemical and biological agents. We developed this capability by merging scientific expertise in chemical and biological signatures with our expertise in canine training. Canines have the ability to detect at levels far below any current instrumentation available. Canines are trained in “operant conditioning” by using a positive and negative reinforcement system involving food treats, toys, or play. We train our handlers to be creative regarding the type of rewards applied and how to apply them. Some of the specific areas of training for both canine and handler include;

Advanced canine emergency medicine
Off lead operations
How to co-exist with other canines and humans
How to work in hazardous or violent conditions
Scent recognition, drills, documentation requirements and practical exercises for the canines
Canine Chemical and Biological detection certification

Training the handler in advanced canine emergency medicine may be the only lifeline for the animal in the event of an injury. The health and safety of the animal is a number one priority.

imagePractical Applications
We believe the capabilities for the chemical – biological detection canines are extremely important in the fight against terrorism. Specifically, by providing tactical training, tools, and services to protect the homeland, and improve our government’s operational capabilities.

The practical applications are:

Search of vehicles, aircraft, ship cargo holds, containers, mailrooms,
   buildings, and critical infrastructure.
Screen major event areas & address security issues for vulnerable
   targets (airports, subways, military installations, schools, government
   facilities, areas for dignitary or high profile visits).
Address WMD events after decontamination.

Signature Science has significant experience and expertise in CBR site exploitation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Possible threats are IED’s spiked with a chemical, biological, and radiological material. Chemical and Biological detection canines can be employed in the Interdicting of the IED process.

imageA Very Sad Ending
Police K-9 Austin died on February 16, 2008 in his loving handler's arms. He had been rushed into emergency surgery due to having developed bloat, and managed to survive the procedure. However, shortly after waking up his vitals deteriorated and as Jim so desolately said:

"Austin looked at me, wide awake and alert, took a deep breath, exhaled, laid his head down, I kissed him, monitors started sounding, and Austin left this cruel world."

Jim has indicated that there will be a special police K-9 memorial service for this 10-11 year old hero.  And, he shared this heartfelt message with me on February 21st:

Rochelle, thank you so much for the kind words. I don't know how much more of this excruciating pain I can endure. I know other people hurt just like I am when they loose a Golden. So I'm not doing the "poor me" thing. But Dammmmm this is killing me. He and I were together for more than 10 years nearly 24 hours a day / 7 days a week.

I'm sure Greg and Carrie haven't told you, but they have been absolutely, totally 100% percent sweethearts. They trusted me enough to allow their Golden "Pippy" to come home with me the night of the day Austin died. Pippy slept in bed with me and was spoiled rotten for nearly 24 hours. The only stipulation was, I had to bring her home the next day. I called the next afternoon and tried to convince Greg that they said just bring her back next year! LOL But he was too slick and caught on! (Actually my friend called for me. My voice would not work from my crying so much.) I must tell you, I had already planned on staying in a hotel room that night because the pain was just too much when I tried to go home. However, Carrie and Greg being considerate and giving, as they are, allowed me to sleep in my own bed with a very loving Golden.

This was so sudden and unexpected. Running and playing just 24 hours prior to his death. I must tell you, At one time, 3 veterinarians and 7 vet techs were working on Austin all at one time. They fought to save his life for nearly 18 solid hours. You can only imagine the tremendous invoice! No big deal as I say. It's only money. They were given unlimited financial authority and CPR was authorized during surgery of needed.

I just found out today that the U.S. Department of Defense is sending a flag that was flying in a war zone in Iraq the day Austin died. A couple of guys I helped with on some special training just prior to their deployment managed to make this happen. They both petted on Austin throughout the entire 2 weeks of training. Another flag is coming from a U.S. Embassy overseas where we were assigned for a short time on a specific assignment. In short, Austin has a following. Hell, I should have run fro President when he was around. But, even though it's getting exciting, it does NOT bring my baby home.



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