man's best friend to find the missing
|Members of the Shawn Hornbeck Search and Rescue Team
watch as a team member and his dog prepare to search for a missing
person in a training exercise. The team was formed after the 2002
disappearnce of Shawn Hornbeck in Richwoods and now works primarily
with search and rescue dogs to help find missing people, especially
It’s a hot,
steamy day as a large group of people gathers on a wooded hillside
to search for a lost man and woman. Not actually lost, the two volunteers
are hiding in the woods waiting for dogs to literally sniff them out.
searchers and their dogs have come together on a large farm near
Steelville for a weekend of canine search and rescue training led by
Mark Holmes, a Texas police detective and one of the country’s
best search dog trainers.
When he’s not following one of his own
bloodhounds, Holmes travels the country training others how to get the
most out of their search dogs. Today he’s
working with members of the Shawn Hornbeck Search and Rescue Team, an all-volunteer
group based in Washington County that knows painfully well the need for well-trained
The group was organized
two years ago after the October 2002 disappearance of an 11-year-old
boy near his home in Richwoods. No trace of Shawn Hornbeck has ever
been found. Frustrated that local law enforcement agencies called off
the initial search a few days after his disappearance, Shawn’s
stepfather and mother organized local volunteers to continue looking
for their son.
typical response of law enforcement is search for 72 hours and they pack it up
and go home. The parents are sitting there and they still don’t
have their child and they’re like, ‘What do we do now?’” says
Craig Akers, Shawn Hornbeck’s stepfather and the founder of the search
and rescue team named for his son.
That group of volunteers
became the Shawn Hornbeck Search and Rescue Team, an organization dedicated
to helping search for lost people, especially children. The team has
been involved in nearly two dozen missing person searches and continues
to look for Shawn (see “Searching for Shawn” at
right). The group concentrates on training search dogs and has brought Holmes
in for an intense three days of hands-on instruction.
Akers and his German
shepherd, Trax, walk along a long row of search team members. Trax
takes a cursory sniff of each individual in the group, taking an inventory
of the scents of people participating in the training. Then Akers takes
a small gauze pad from a plastic bag and lets Trax take a whiff. The
pair takes off through the woods in search of the source of the scent,
the missing person.
dogs are trained to take the smell from a known person and follow it regardless
of terrain, atmospheric conditions and distractions,” says
Holmes as he trails Akers and Trax weaving in and out of trees, crossing barbed
wire fences and stumbling through thick brush.
|A bloodhound is often used for tracking scents because of its great
sense of smell, but many dog breeds make good search dogs.
All dogs and cats
have the ability to follow smells. It’s hard-wired in
their brains, says Holmes, and is part of their hunting instincts that remain
even in pets. What is amazing about search dogs is their ability to distinguish
between dozens of different smells and hone in on one.
“All day long scents
are literally exploding out of your body,” says
Holmes. “Scent lingers in the air and eventually settles to the ground
and onto vegetation. But even if a person walks across a paved parking lot, they
leave behind their scent.”
Dogs can even pick
up a person’s scent
escaping from a moving vehicle. Holmes says it’s impossible for a person
to escape their smell.
As an example
Holmes has someone light a small smoke bomb and walk through the woods trailing
behind a long yellow cloud. It’s mid-morning and damp and
the smoke hangs thick in the air for a few seconds and then wafts through the
woods on a slight breeze. More than 15 minutes later the smoke still hangs in
the air. Like the smoke, a person’s scent can remain in an area for weeks
depending on the terrain and atmospheric conditions, says Holmes.
There are many
kinds of specially trained search and rescue dogs including those that find
people trapped in collapsed buildings or search for human remains.
But the dogs Holmes works with are trailing dogs, trained specifically
to follow a person’s
scent to its source. Akers and Trax meander through the woods and within 20 minutes
the experienced dog finds the volunteer sitting in thick brush beneath a tree,
totally out of sight of those walking only a few feet away.
Nationally known search and rescue dog trainer Mark Holmes points
out a path to take to search and rescue team member John Hilton.
Holmes, a Texas police detective and canine handler, travels the
country teaching teams to work with search dogs.
praise,” says Holmes, as he encourages Akers and the volunteer
to show the dog how happy they are he has found his man.
“To them this is
a big game,” Akers says of search dogs. “That’s
their motivation. This is how we play.”
The Shawn Hornbeck
Search and Rescue Team has been called out to help search for lost
children, elderly people and even hunters. Some of their searches have
been successful and others have not.
Pat Tuholske, who
owns the farm where the groups trains, has been a part of the team
from the beginning. She and her Labrador retriever, Fin, have known
the highs and lows of searching for the missing, beginning with Shawn
Shawn went missing, that was only 12 miles from my house,” says
Tuholske. “My heart went out to his parents and it touched me that the
missing child epidemic had landed in my backyard. I just couldn’t sit at
home. I had to help.”
one of the team’s successes
last fall when a hunter went missing near Leasburg. Team members spent nearly
24 hours searching for him including a difficult and dangerous night search.
At one point in the middle of the night Tuholske fell and injured her shoulder.
|Craig Akers (left in
picture) and a volunteer “missing person” praise
Aker’s dog, Trax, for successfully finding his man. Akers,
the step-father of Shawn Hornbeck, is the founder and director of
the canine search and rescue team named for his son who disappeared
from rural Washington County in 2002
The team eventually
found the man, who suffered a brain aneurism and couldn’t
walk. He had spent two nights incapacitated and lying in the woods but was alive
when the team found him.
“Finding him alive made all the training and hard
work worth it,” says
Tuholske. “It’s a very rewarding experience when you reunite someone
who’s been lost with their family. You feel like you’ve done your
little bitty part in the world.”
The team still searches
for Shawn and follows up leads with the FBI, which continues to investigate
his disappearance, but Akers finds it difficult not knowing what happened
to his stepson. Akers says it helps that good has come from his family’s
“Sometimes it’s bittersweet because my son is still missing
and I can’t find him no matter how hard I try,” says Akers.
to other parents of missing children and the fact that we get involved and do
the searches and put their children on our Web site and produce fliers and distribute
them, that really gives them more hope than they had before we arrived.”
More information about the search and rescue team is available at www.sarteam.com.
Searching for Shawn
Hornbeck disappeared on Oct. 6, 2002 while riding his bike near his
home near Richwoods in rural Washington County. Despite thousands
of hours of work by local law enforcement agencies, volunteers and
the FBI, no trace has ever been found of the then 11-year-old boy.
|A searcher works
a bloodhound during the recent training exercise of the Shawn Hornbeck
Search and Rescue team, a group formed in response to Shawn's disappearance.
Refusing to give
up, Shawn’s parents, Pamela and Craig Akers, organized
volunteers to continue the search. Many of those volunteers eventually
became the Shawn Hornbeck Search and Rescue team, which is dedicated
to help find missing children.
Now organized as a nonprofit foundation, the group not only conducts
searches to help find missing people, it also has a mission to educate
the world about the dark, frightening world of missing children, like
Using the Web site www.alostchild.com, the foundation offers constantly
updated information about missing children. The foundation also maintains
a command post in Richwoods where people with informatin about missing
children can call a toll-free number 24 hours a day. The information
is then forwarded to the appropriate law enforcement agency.
Foundation volunteers also speak to groups about the dangers of child
abduction and how to protect your kids. And the group offers a program
called MyID4Life where foundation volunteers collect digital fingerprints
and photographs as well as DNA samples which are packaged with a CD
containing the digital information and given to the child’s parents.
The foundation has also begun a program to place benches featuring
pictures of missing children in front of grocery stores throughout
“We’re trying to give these parents some hope,” says
Craig Akers, the foundation’s director.
For more information
about the Shawn Hornbeck Foundation visit the Web site www.shawnhornbeck.com. Information about missing children can be called into the foundation’s
command center toll free 24 hours a day at 1-866-400-5353.