WAYNESVILLE, Ohio — Jason LaGore pulled the frozen body part from the red-and-white Coleman cooler in the bed of his pickup truck, tucked it inside a wire cage to hold it together over time, tethered the contraption to a tree limb and let it sink 8 feet into the middle of Caesar Creek Lake.
He waited a few minutes for the scent to travel up through the water.
Then LaGore, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources officer who trains the department’s six-dog K-9 unit, strapped a life vest onto Sarge, his 2-year-old Labrador retriever, and together they boarded a small boat.
As the vessel motored out across the lake, LaGore waved his hand toward the water and gave Sarge his command: Find Fred. The dog immediately dropped his head over the bow of the boat and went to work, sniffing for a scent from the gases and oils that a cadaver gives off.
The dogs, used by the state for on-water searches since 2012, are getting quite a workout this year. In all of 2016, the state’s search dogs were used on water 13 times; this year, they’ve been out 21 times, and there’s plenty of summer left.
The 2017 number doesn’t necessarily mean that many more incidents, but it reflects that the state added two dogs this year and that the dogs are sometimes deployed on consecutive days to try to make a find.
The dogs aren’t used only on the water. They are also variously trained in drug detection, suspect searches, the tracking and finding of missing people on land, handler protection and other tasks.
In addition to the handler’s salaries, the dogs cost the state about $8,000 a year, said ODNR spokeswoman Carey Santiana.
Scent sleuthing is not an exact science: Even a little wind can carry a body’s scent and scatter it. And plenty of skeptics must be converted, each seeing in person that these dogs indeed can be trained to sniff out a submerged body.
“I thought this was all voodoo,” said Chad Cruset, an officer in the Department of Natural Resources. He’s also a longtime sonar operator who was piloting the boat for LaGore, Sarge and two other state handlers and their canine partners on a recent training mission at Caesar Creek Lake in Warren County.
Over time, Cruset said, he watched as each animal put more than a year of training into action. Sometimes — especially, say, when there’s an empty boat or kayak, and no one saw where a missing person went under — searchers face scanning hundreds of acres of water.
Sonar technology is only so good, and often of little use in murky and deep waters. It’s best used when an object has been pinpointed and a sonar image can be used to decide whether it is, in fact, a body or instead maybe just a tree stump or debris. Then a dive team can be sent in.
The dogs, however, pinpoint the scent and help searchers focus on a more manageable area in less time.
“If a dog can get me even within 50 or 100 yards, that’s huge,” Cruset said. “These dogs are stallions.”
LaGore, a lifelong dog lover assigned to the department’s Southwest Ohio Park and Watercraft District, is more than a bit uncomfortable as the on-water searches by dogs gain attention. He would just as soon work in obscurity with his animal partners, who include Ranger, an 8-year-old Lab nearing retirement. Yet LaGore is happy to explain what they do, especially when a disbeliever asks.
Count Marion County Sheriff Tim Bailey among that latter group.
With the Scioto River running through his county, and many areas prone to flooding, drownings there are not uncommon. But Bailey said he frequently didn’t call for the state canines because he didn’t think they would be of help.
But in May, when two kayakers got into trouble at a lowhead dam, one body was found immediately, but the other one was not. LaGore and Sarge and Ranger came to help.
“I thought it was bunk,” Bailey said while watching the dogs work on May 23. “But they really are getting us closer, and it is pretty amazing.” The second body was found about a day and a half after the kayakers had gone under.
LaGore trains each of the department’s dogs and handlers, and he starts them all on land. Blood in a toy or a body part (on loan from Wright State University’s Anatomical Gift Program) is strategically placed in a field or in woods, and the dogs are tracked to it. They are rewarded upon doing so. Eventually, LaGore moves the training to the water.
The animals can smell a body in water because it gives off specific gases and scents immediately after the heart stops, experts say.
Watching the dogs do their work is amazing, Cruset said as he steered his boat toward the sunken remains with Sarge on the bow, the dog’s tail pounding the deck, his head swiveling side to side as he tried to zero in on his target.
“It never gets old,” Cruset said. He pointed to the dog. “Now watch this.”
As he steered the boat closer to the sunken body parts, Sarge — short for his registered American Kennel Club name, Sgt. Friday, from the old TV show “Dragnet” — grew more excited. He lapped at the water and looked as if he was tasting it. But he wasn’t, LaGore said.
Dogs, he explained, have a “Jacobson’s organ” that helps them smell. Think, LaGore said, of a snake sticking its tongue out. The reptiles also have a Jacobson’s organ, and they’re “tasting” the air. Dogs do that, too. And as a body moves in the water, it leaves behind its scent. If it got hung up in weeds, for example, the smell lingers, and the dogs will even nip at the greenery. It all helps the searchers track a path.
In a real search, versus a training mission, dogs generally are used in tandem — one sniffs east to west on the water, the other, separately, north to south — to see whether they hit in the same general area. The handlers then use a mapping application on their phones to mark the hits on a grid to let sonar operators, dive teams and searchers home in.
So as Sarge got closer to the remains, and to the scent he seeks, knowing that he will earn a toy for finding, he nipped at the air and water.
Cruset, for this training mission, intentionally steered past the body part.
Sarge got upset.
He looked at LaGore, who was holding tight to a leash so that the dog didn’t dive into the lake. Sarge whined. He tried to head to the back of the boat.
“That’s it,” LaGore said. “He’s telling me, ‘Hey, stupid, you went too far.'”
Cruset circled back. Sarge got excited; he dropped his body lower to the boat deck. His tail stopped thumping and went in circles instead.
They were close. They found Fred.
LaGore rewarded the dog with a toy.
“It’s a game to them,” he said. “They don’t understand the seriousness of what we do.”
Not so for the handlers.
“For us, this isn’t a job. It’s a mission. It’s a calling,” he said. “It’s a way to get some grieving family an answer to a mystery and tragedy more quickly.”
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com