By Deborah Fingerglow • Photos by Danielle Debley
I’m sorry folks, I’m going to need to cut this presentation short. We’ve been called out to help with a missing person,” explains Terri Heck. She packs up her anti-bullying program quickly and efficiently, maneuvering a box under her arm and guiding K9 Briggs to the door.
Briggs is a beautiful black and tan bloodhound, trained to search and help rescue missing persons here in south-central Pennsylvania. She is part of the Summit Search and Rescue team headed up by Terri and Jim Heck. They operate the non-profit at no charge to the community that benefits from their trained bloodhounds. This is volunteerism at its finest, working to help local law enforcement find folks that are lost, as well as those who would rather not be found.
What is Scent-Tracking?
Bloodhounds are unparalleled when it comes to scent tracking. Tenacious, stubborn and dedicated, these dogs can pick up scent from virtually any object, even if it’s been altered by fire, or taken into the water. They are true masters of scent. So proficient in fact, that their positive identification of a subject is accepted in court proceedings. They’re that good at what they do. SSAR bloodhounds are deputized in Cumberland County, PA by the District Attorney Office Division of Criminal Investigation.
Born to it, the rangy bloodhound can work through almost any terrain. Head down, long ears working to sweep the scent up into their noses, the bloodhound can scent from the ground as well as the air. “Scent travels,” explains Heck, “Every minute we’re constantly shedding skin cells that we can’t see. The bloodhounds can detect scent that is dissipated by wind and rain. It’s all around us.” Prior to a search, the dogs are harnessed up, given a scent article and told to “find.” That’s when their training kicks in.
How Do Bloodhounds Find Missing People?
The dogs regularly work both new and aged trails as part of their ongoing training.To keep the teams sharp, weekly training sessions in a variety of scenarios, constantly challenge both human and dog. They train in the wind, rain, snow and even in the water. Up against railroad tracks and in debris-filled brush. In deserted buildings and in crowded streets. The goal is to prepare the teams for any real-life situation they encounter.
During a recent training session, a volunteer provided an unusual scent article – her sister’s suicide note. The entire scenario was coordinated by Jim Heck, retired Detective Sergeant, who does his best to think of the unthinkable. A second volunteer victim – the sister – was loaded into the back of an SUV and covered with a soiled tarp. Handlers were given the note to scent, interviewing the first volunteer who sent them off in the wrong direction. Each time, each bloodhound running the trail circled back to the car and found the victim.
Handlers are taught to read the dog’s signals. When the bloodhound makes a positive identification, there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind. The amazing part is that the dogs self-regulate, choosing the most appropriate signal for each situation. “Our dogs are taught to jump up on the person to identify, especially in criminal investigations. But in missing person searches, with children or the elderly, the dogs will lay down next to the person, signaling the end of the search and identifying the person,” explains Heck.
Serious at work and in harness, Briggs the bloodhound is joyful at home with Terri and Jim and fellow bloodhounds K9 Merit and K9 Stratton. They chase bubbles, eat mini-pumpkins for a treat and clamber all over a playset that is there solely for their enjoyment.
“Working dogs need balance, just like we do,” says Terri. “A time to work and a time to play and exercise, and just be dogs.”
It All Started with a Bloodhound Named Boone
K9 Briggs follows in the footsteps of her predecessors. Boone was the first bloodhound Terri Heck trained. A small black and tan, wrinkly dog that would alter the course of Terri’s life. Jim Heck chose a bloodhound as the ultimate Valentine’s Day gift, starting something that would turn into a true benefit for the community, Summit Search and Rescue. Established in 1999, the teams have worked more than 1,000 cases. Prior to Boone’s arrival, Heck had seen the story of an elderly woman who had wandered from her home and died from exposure. “I kept wondering if things could have turned out differently if a trained bloodhound was available,” says Heck.
K9s Comanche and Apache followed Boone. Then K9 Merit and now K9s Briggs and Stratton. All trained in search and rescue. All on call 24/7, 365 days per year. K9 Briggs wears multiple hats. Not only is she a trained search and rescue dog, she’s a Cumberland County detective and a certified therapy dog. When she’s not out on the trail, you can find Briggs and Heck in local schools and community centers teaching lessons of safety and presenting an anti-bullying program that started years ago with K9 Merit. Heck isn’t surprised by the program’s success or longevity. “The kids open up to the dogs, they feel like they can relate more easily, and they hear the message.”
The Pennsylvania State Working Animal Foundation (PSWAF): One of a Kind Mission Hits Close to Home
Most folks don’t know exactly what working animals do, and how they benefit the residents of Pennsylvania. They can’t appreciate the training and time spent working as part of a team, because most of us don’t how it happens. We don’t think about the service or the sacrifice some of these working animals make. Heck knows first-hand. K9 Merit just recently retired from service at age 13. She’s worked hard in spite of health complications that added up to thousands of dollars that Heck was more than willing to pay. “She’s invested her whole life in service; we have an obligation to take care of her to the best of our ability. And besides that, we love her.”
When PSWAF founder Rob Lauver approached Terri Heck and asked her to volunteer even more of her time, she didn’t hesitate. PSWAF is a 501c non-profit founded to celebrate, honor and support working animals across the Commonwealth. Headquartered in Mechanicsburg, the foundation will provide a forever memorial, showcasing the service and lives of working animals here in Pennsylvania. The complex will be an educational hub that shares the stories of police K9s, therapy dogs, service animals, mounted patrol and many more. Heck feels strongly about honoring and supporting the animals that serve us so well. “I’ve spent my entire life working with the animals, and I see the work they do. And most times, once they pass, they’re forgotten. All of these animals are fiercely loyal to the folks they serve; we want to honor that. They deserve it.”
Heck isn’t content to stop there. Both Terri and Jim Heck travel up and down the East Coast to help train bloodhounds for law enforcement and search and rescue work. On days off, you’ll find her walking the streets of Steelton with K9 Briggs, providing community service in a more casual, more approachable way. Reaching out and connecting. One person and one bloodhound at a time.
For further information on Summit Search and Rescue Bloodhounds, visit their website at www.ssarbloodhounds.org. If you’d like to see images of the dogs in training and community service, check out their Facebook page at Summit Search and Rescue. To learn more about The Pennsylvania State Working Animal Foundation, visit them at www.pswaf.org, or on their Facebook page at PA State Working Animal Foundation. Both non-profits participate in community events and welcome the chance to say hello and introduce you to a real-live working animal.