K-9 team ready for the call

By Dave Gomez

Harley, a 2-year-old German shepherd dog and member of the Midwest K-9 Emergency Response Team since she was a pup, is trained in cadaver searching for the team.

The 10-handler, 10-dog team aids police and fire departments in missing persons cases, cadaver and evidence recovery, search and rescue and public relations.

Harley is owned and trained by Mary Heinrich. Although Harley has been on cadaver searches, she is still in training.

Midwest K-9 is the local team for the North American Search Dog Network, said President Ellen Ponall, who has worked with search and rescue dogs since 1972.

The team’s range extends to Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota, Iowa and Michigan.

The network was formed in 1988 and provides resources and contacts for search and rescue teams across the continent.

“It’s not an easy endeavor,” Ponall said. “We have to be able to leave our jobs and take off from work. Our employers have to be willing to let us go, because we can be gone a week at a time.”

The team only responds to police and fire departments in the interest of maintaining professionalism and credibility,” Ponall said.

DeKalb Police Lt. Jim Kayes called Ponall’s team a valuable addition to the law enforcement community.

The team has generally been used to help track down robbery suspects, Kayes said, but has also helped find missing persons.

Earlier this year, the team tracked down the body of 21-year-old NIU student Devon Blue in a retention pond off Hillcrest Drive.

The team was also called out earlier this year to help DeKalb police track a driver who left his car after a train struck it on Lincoln Highway.

The dogs – which are all personally owned by the handlers – are constantly trained and evaluated by the team using positive motivational techniques.

“It’s a game for the dog,” Ponall said. “It’s fun for them.”

Depending on the individual, training can begin at puppyhood or as an adult. Each dog can come from a variety of backgrounds.

“We have dogs that come from pounds that work beautifully,” Ponall said.

A bloodhound with only four months of training was able to find an Alzheimer’s patient who had been missing for 24 hours, Ponall said.

Ponall said the right dog must have the intelligence and drive to work.

“You can’t force a dog to use its nose,” she said.

Ponall said she doesn’t consider a dog’s training complete for at least one year, when the dog has been exposed to a variety of seasonal conditions, ranging from snow in the winter to the scent of decomposing material in the fall.