Lost in the woods? Search dogs will bark up your tree

Pip (left) uses his skills as an "air scenter" dog to find someone hidden in the woods by catching smells in the air. Clyde (right), on the other hand, is a "tracker" dog, meaning that he picks up the scent a person leaves behind and follows an olfactory path to his target. The bloodhound is pictured here with his owner, Patti Elfreth.
Pip (left) uses his skills as an "air scenter" dog to find someone hidden in the woods by catching smells in the air. Clyde (right), on the other hand, is a "tracker" dog, meaning that he picks up the scent a person leaves behind and follows an olfactory path to his target. The bloodhound is pictured here with his owner, Patti Elfreth. (PHOTOS: STEPHANIE FARR / DAILY NEWS STAFF)
Posted: August 21, 2012

WHEN SOMEONE loses his or her senses and gets lost in the Philly region, local volunteers come to their senses to try to bring the missing back home.

So what if those volunteers drool? Nobody's perfect.

The Keystone K-9s Search and Rescue Team, an all-volunteer squad serving Bucks and Montgomery counties, was founded in 2009 by Patti Elfreth, her husband, Tim, and others.

"With people living longer and Alzheimer's rates rising, we saw a greater need for K-9 search-and-rescue in the area," Patti Elfreth said.

The group is called by 9-1-1 dispatchers and local police agencies to assist in searches, and it takes pride in not charging a cent for the scent services.

"If your mother's lost, the last thing you want to worry about is paying someone to find her," Tim Elfreth said.

Recent searches by the Keystone K-9s include Valley Forge Park in February for a missing Lower Providence woman and Levittown in December for a dementia patient who wandered away from home.

In the Levittown case, Petti Elfreth said, her bloodhound Clyde led authorities to a creek, where they found the woman's body.

Every Sunday morning and Thursday night - no matter the weather - the group trains, using people who volunteer to "get lost" so that they can be found by the dogs. On Sunday, the dogs practiced on Hatboro-Horsham High School's grounds using this reporter as their missing person.

Patti Elfreth said that "tracking dogs" follow a person's scent and path, and "air scenters" are trained to find any person anywhere. Of the three dogs participating Sunday, Clyde was a tracker; and Ace, an American black Lab, and Pip, a mutt, were scenters.

"Between the two types of dogs, you can find a person pretty fast," she said.

She wasn't kidding. Each dog found his well-hidden target within 10 minutes of hearing the magic word - "work" - although Ace thought that taking care of his personal business took priority over first finding this reporter. Pip also found this reporter, then promptly chased after squirrels.

"You're using the dog and working them, but it's also hide-and-seek," Patti Elfreth said. "They have no idea it's real when it is for real, so it's still a game to them."

Besides needing volunteers who can "get lost" for the Keystone K-9s, the group also seeks other dogs to try out to become part of the pack. The main requirement: Must love humans.

Debby Leo, Pip's owner and a retired detective from Cheltenham, said that volunteer dogs are an important supplement to trained police dogs because their demeanor is far more comforting to the lost and missing.

"Running down a burglar is a lot different than finding a little kid," she said.

For more information, visit the group's website, keystone-k9s-sar.cabanova.com.


Contact Stephanie Farr at farrs@phillynews.com or 215-854-4225. Follow her on Twitter @FarFarrAway. Read her blog at PhillyConfidential.com.

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