Special K-9's Bring Closure to Families and Criminals to Justice

August 28, 2017 Written by: Aiden Doane


It’s hard to imagine anything worse than having a family member -- especially a small child -- go missing. It’s even harder to imagine families who never get closure and criminals who are never brought to justice because a missing body can’t be located. While there are many search and rescue volunteers and K-9 teams out there (who are doing incredible work every day to keep people safe), the field for human remains detection (HRD) is a pretty small one. But heroes like Aaron Tucker and Jes Tidwell are out there on a volunteer basis -- most often on their nights, weekends, and holidays -- bringing closure to families who, in some cases, have been waiting decades to lay their loved ones to rest.

Jes Tidwell, the vice president for Special K-9s, spent last Christmas out with her 2-year-old Belgian malinois, Davos, working a crime scene. Though she can’t speak about any of the cases she’s worked on, she can speak to her experience and the pressure a job like this brings.

Jes Tidwell and her two working dogsJes and her two dogs, Davos and Tempie. PC: Special K-9s

“With a fresh case, we want to move quickly and cover as much ground as possible,” she explains. “If you’re talking about something like an old grave site from 60 years ago, you’re going to have to cover your area differently. Obviously, we never want to miss anything, however with a case where the scent is going to be so light and so small, you have to work a lot more slowly. But you also use up a lot of more nose time.”

“Nose time” means understanding your dog and knowing their capabilities as well as you know yourself. “It’s physically and mentally exhausting for the dog,” Jes says. “Especially if you’re moving slow and doing a grid search. We have to break the dogs often, so we get less ground covered.”

Jes explains there’s other factors they have to take into consideration on a search, including the terrain and the weather. In some cases, the dog might only get 20 minutes out on a search (nose time) before they need to break for an hour for food and rest. At Special K-9s, they often bring multiple dogs out to a case, formulating a strategy for a search that includes rotations of dogs, where to put each dog, and what areas are of the highest probability to search. Obviously, if the space is smaller (like a basement - yes, these dogs can smell through concrete and foundations), not as many dogs are needed and the area can be covered more quickly. Sidenote: if you’ve ever listened to the podcast Someone Knows Something, there’s a few episodes in the first season that cover an HRD situation where multiple dogs are brought in, including to sniff out underwater odors (disclaimer: we’re not associated with that podcast in any way). Special K-9s are also experts in water scent.

Special K9s grid search

When the teams are out covering a lot of ground, technology is a huge aide in reducing their search time. Imagine a 100-acre search area that needs to be covered in only a couple days -- Special K-9s equips each dog with a GPS collar and then overlays the search paths onto a map. This allows the handlers and search team to see if there’s any holes in the search that need to be covered the next day, and it also lets them tag spots where the dogs scent on something (their trained final response). They can also hand the maps over to law enforcement to further investigate the areas. When a dog does scent on something, Jes’s team always sends out a second dog and handler working blind (meaning they are unaware that another dog exhibited a response in that area and have no extra information other than that it’s an assigned search area). HRD dogs are trained to only scent on human remains and human blood, so they won’t exhibit any signs related to animal remains.

Most HRD teams (and SAR teams in general), including Special K-9s, are 100% volunteer. This means they never get paid, and all of the people on these teams are working other jobs. In most cases, they have to cover all of the expenses associated with a search themselves, including airfare. So why do they do it, and how do people like Jes find the energy to add in all the extra hours, especially when Special K-9s averages about two calls every week?

“We hate turning anybody down,” she says. “If we get called out then somebody is missing, a family has not had closure, court cases are still open, and somebody out there needs to be convicted. We want to make a difference.”

Special K9s

If you’re interested in what Jes does, there’s a bunch of ways you can get involved. The biggest difference you can make is to donate to Special K-9s or another organization like them. Those GPS collars that are a necessary tool for any large search area cost around $800 each. Then there’s travel costs, accommodations that have to be paid for, dog food, first aid supplies for both the humans and K-9s, and other protective gear (at Rex Specs, we provide our goggles to numerous SAR teams and often run promotions where we donate a percentage of sales to a SAR team, so we thank everyone who’s helped us support these guys in the past!). The other way Special K-9s use donations is to cover things like seminars or re-certification (depending on what each team is certified in, they have to re-cert every year or every two years). Special K-9s never use any of the money to pay themselves for their time -- so as you know, every dollar helps!

The other way to help is to get involved directly. HRD is an incredibly time consuming and challenging field, so you’ll want to find a local or regional SAR team that you can get involved with. Jes first got involved about eight years ago, when she asked a local SAR team if she could come out and watch them work. She jumped on board and started out as a flanker. “You’ve got the handler, the K-9, and a flanker on every search,” Jes says. “The flanker handles communication, notes, navigation -- and keeping an eye out for the handler. As a handler, you have to focus so intently on your dog you can literally walk into a hole, so the flanker watches out for them.” While Jes was working as a flanker and learning in the field, she also immediately started training to be a handler. It took about eight months from the time she started until the time she got certified with her first dog, Tempie (who is happily retired now).

Dogs at work

Another thing Jes cautions against, which Aaron Tucker also spoke about when we interviewed him, is that selecting the right dog for HRD work is incredibly important. The proper drive level is critical, and the dog has to live for the the reward, whatever it may be. “They have to want it more than anything else. If you don’t have those drive levels it’ll be an uphill battle -- even if you’re successful, it would be really difficult.” This is a great way to let the local experts help you -- they know what to look for to help you find the right dog. And of course, the bond is equally as important. “I don’t care how good a dog is -- if you put them with a handler that doesn’t know how to read them, they’re not going to be as successful. That’s why it’s the team that gets certified -- my current certification is just for me to work with Davos.”

Right now Special K-9s has 12 teams -- 10 are certified for land searches, six are certified for water searches, and two are currently in training. “I’m always impressed with the handlers on our team and how much they give to us,” says Jes, who works full time as a dog trainer to pay the bills. “They work full time jobs and then come and sacrifice more of their time and money. They put their hearts and souls into this, and it’s very, very difficult work and can be very difficult to handle emotionally.”

Special K9's

There’s a lot of pressure in every case, whether it be the pressure a handler feels to bring closure to a family or the pressure to work quickly to bring someone to justice. “There’s always the fear that you’re going to make a mistake or your dog’s going to make a mistake,” she says. “We try our hardest to make sure that never happens.” Despite the pressure, Jes and Davos are out training every day of the week, ready to deploy for search at the drop of a hat. “By helping to close a case it’s extremely rewarding for me. It lets me know I’m doing what I believe I was meant to do.”

All pictures courtesy of Jes and Special K-9s.

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