For most, the Schuylkill river is a picturesque backdrop for a picnic or a commute along the river drives. Only when there’s a tragedy, like the drowning of Shane Montgomery or Christopher Tully, do we realize how dangerous the river can be.
Few know those dangers better than search and rescue teams, which routinely encounter poor underwater visibility, tidal surges, strong currents, garbage, and other hazards in their search for a missing person. It’s also slow, tedious work often carried out over wide areas.
To limit the danger and make the searches more efficient, teams like mine — the Pennsylvania Wilderness Search and Rescue (PaWSAR) — rely on specially trained dogs.
We’ve found that a dog’s superior senses can reduce the size of a search area, aid in the placement of divers, and reduce the need for dives into risky areas.
Their keen eyesight and hearing can be critical in rescuing trapped or injured persons, but it is their sense of smell that is most helpful to us, particularly in recovering a body from water.
By scenting the water, water search dogs can detect the gases and other odors of a corpse as they rise to the surface. The dogs and handlers work as a team either in a boat or along the river banks until the dog “alerts” that it’s detected something.
It is a bit trickier with water than a standard land search because the current and the temperature of the water affect the way the scent rises from the body and where it disperses on the water’s surface.
Because of this effect, our team relies on multiple dogs to pinpoint the exact location. It requires a great deal of training to develop the dog/handler teams, but that’s what PaWSAR is all about.
When it comes to training, our motto is simple–if you don’t train, you have stopped learning. We never stop learning.
Our team plans to visit East Falls soon to continue that training. We have operated in Philadelphia before, but would like to expand our operations up the Schuylkill to East Falls, which offers a greater variety of water and wooded terrain in which to practice.
We Want You
If you enjoy teamwork, learning tracking and recovery skills, or just want to help others, consider joining PaWSAR. We are an all-volunteer organization that’s been saving lives and retrieving missing persons since 2009.
Because it is made up of volunteers and doesn’t charge for its services, we greatly appreciate any time or money you can donate to our cause.
Caleb Shadle began working in marketing and enjoys writing, designing, and promoting his various outdoor activities such as climbing, biking, and search and rescue.
He is planning on riding his bike to Colorado in is continuing to grow his website, GotClimb.com.
ED. NOTE: East Falls Local looks forward to (hopefully) tagging along on some training exercises when PaWSAR visits our area later this summer. Also, we’re planning a special Sunday Pack Walk “Meet ‘n Greet” with Caleb, where he’ll have more info and stories to share about canine rescue.