The moment Calverton resident Chris Padden said two words, “Go find,” Keli, an 8-year-old Belgian Malinois, barked and bounded into the brush off Parkers Road, not far from Grumman Memorial Park, sniffing as she went.
That exchange has become second nature for Mr. Padden, 43, who has spent the last 15 years training dogs like Keli to detect the human scent and aid in search and rescue missions across the tri-state area. He’s a member of Long Island Search and Rescue, a nonprofit that provides trained search dog teams for official agencies, and has trained three of his own dogs for search missions over the years.
“She will find anybody and everybody out there,” said Mr. Padden, who’s also a member of the Riverhead Volunteer Fire Department.
As soon as they arrive at a scene and step into their bright orange vests, the search dogs know they are there to work.
“When she puts that vest on it’s a different situation,” he said as Keli sniffed around excitedly a few yards away. “Vest on and vest off is two different worlds for her.”
Some dogs are trained to pick up the human scent in general, while others are given a specific smell to track, often from a piece of the missing person’s clothing. The dog handlers follow the lead of the agency they are called to help and can assist in setting up search areas.
Long Island Search and Rescue, on average, is called to help on about 10 searches each year, in situations that might involve missing hikers or hunters or Alzheimer’s or dementia patients who wander from safety, Mr. Padden said. Their efforts were requested in 2014 when an elderly Riverside woman was reported missing. Her body was found after a two-day search.
“No matter which we find, it’s always that sense of relief that we found what we were looking for,” he said. “So one way or another, it’s a closure to the family.”
The search and rescue organization is one extension of Mr. Padden’s focus on and passion for volunteering and emergency management.
“Ever since I could remember, if I saw something bad I wanted to run in instead of out,” he said. He submitted his fire department application the same day he moved to Riverhead about four years ago. He is currently working toward a Ph.D. in public safety and has a master’s degree in emergency management and homeland security. In addition, he recently started a wholesale grocery business.
Riverhead Fire Department Chief Kevin Brooks said Mr. Padden, who is part of the department’s Ever-Ready Engine Company, is an active member.
“He’s probably one of the busiest at furthering his education in the fire service,” Chief Brooks said. “He’s always taking additional courses.”
The search and rescue volunteers often take time off from their regular jobs to travel to the search locations and pay their own way to get there, Mr. Padden said. Training for the volunteers is intense; Mr. Padden said it’s just as thorough as fire and EMS preparation. Handlers are taught to endure long searches in the wilderness and, like detectives, learn to recognize possible clues such as broken branches, all while remaining alert to when their dogs need a break, he said.
New York Department of Environmental Conservation forest ranger Bryan Gallagher sees the Long Island Search and Rescue team monthly during training sessions held in Ridge and has observed firsthand how in tune the handlers are with their dogs.
“They know their dogs very well,” said Mr. Gallagher, who is based on Shelter Island. “A lot of hours and a lot of time goes into working with their dogs.”
For the dogs, obedience training is key. Mr. Padden recalled training his first search dog, Kodiak, to jump over obstacles. Once, after arriving at a scene on the New Jersey side of the Palisades Parkway, Kodiak sped to the edge of the road, ready to jump over a brick wall that was a few feet high. The problem was that there was a sheer drop down to the Hudson River on the other side. Mr. Padden quickly yelled, “Sit!” and Kodiak stopped, perched atop the wall.
The dogs are also trained to associate human scents with a reward.
“Their noses are incredible,” Mr. Padden said. To give an idea of just how sensitive they are, he said, imagine walking into a house where someone is making chicken soup. A human could smell it and know it’s soup, but a dog can discern each individual ingredient by its scent, right down to the water, he said.
Mr. Padden is clear to distinguish the dogs he trains as working dogs and says he forms a strong bond with them through their work. For Keli, the end goal is a toy or a treat, given as a reward and an incentive for her effort.
“Why would she want to do the job if … she [thinks] it’s waiting for her in the living room?” he said.
The dogs get a sense of happiness and togetherness when they make a find or when they’re working, he said, adding that for him, volunteering is part of his mind-set.
Top photo caption: Chris Padden and his dog, Keli, have helped on search-and-rescue missions around Long Island and in surrounding states. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)