Search and rescue group plans expansion

Local News

ILLINOIS (WCIA) — Dogs are commonly referred to as a “man’s best friend,” but given the right training, some dogs can save lives.

Disaster Dogs of Illinois wants to expand into Central Illinois. It’s dogs can help in the aftermath of natural disasters, searching for people dead or alive. They can also find other missing people, all at no cost to you.

Lined up, their furry faces and wagging tails might look like any group of dogs, but when you add the vests and the bells, the dogs add up to something more.

“Some of them can track and trail up to three-, four-day old scents. Some of them are trained to scent human remains,” says Dave Pawloski.

Pawloski is president of Disaster Dogs of Illinois. 

On a course, the dogs demonstrate what they can do. The dogs spend hours in training, being taught to sniff out human scents, then bark, until they’re rewarded with their favorite toy.

Climbing ladders exhibits their agility, because after a natural disaster, they don’t know what they’ll find.

“We can go anywhere we’re requested and operate for 72 hours independent of anyone else. We bring our own food, water, shelter, electricity,” says Bill Miller, the group’s operations director.

Miller says the organization was created in 2011 to help fill a gap they saw between what the government can provide and what other non-profits can do. 

“The United States has gone through two major hurricanes and the Virgin Islands and the island of Puerto Rico were also devastated. During that time frame, 30 FEMA task forces were dispatched. That spread all their resources very, very thin at that point. Should there have been another incident, an earthquake in California, or some other catastrophic event, they were already stretched thin. This is where resources like ours come in,” says Miller.

It’s not just natural disasters the group responds to. We met the group in Kankakee, where they were called two years ago to help with a search. They helped find the body of a missing woman.

The dogs can also track down runaways, people with Alzheimer’s who wander away and more. The organization recently got a drone to help with its searches.

While the dogs can clear large areas very quickly, the drone can be sent out before the dogs so handlers can get an idea of the terrain ahead of them.

The group showed how quickly they can work. While the dogs were in the car, our crew hid about 500 feet away, tucked away in a secluded area of the woods. It took Ivan, the dog, less than two minutes to find them.

It’s that quick work and special set of skills handlers want to take further into Illinois. Currently based in northern Illinois, the group has eight dogs. Its long-term goal is to have 21 teams across the state; in northern, central and southern Illinois.

“We are trying to equip ourselves to respond anywhere in the state of Illinois within a three hour time frame,” says Pawloski.

That time is crucial because, when someone’s life could be at risk, every minute counts. The end goal is to bring answers to law enforcement or families waiting anxiously at home.

“All the handlers and members in our organization have some sort of either military background, fire department, helping give back and helping people. You really don’t understand when you do help somebody, you don’t know what happens down the road with them. It’s kind of nice to actually be a part of this organization so we can help bring some closure to a family,” says Pawloski. 

Dogs of Disaster Dogs of Illinois have special skill sets. They can do things police K-9’s cannot, and vice versa.

Here’s a list of dogs some Central Illinois police departments have, and what they’re trained to do:

  • Champaign Police have two dogs trained in drug detection, article search tracking and apprehension. 
  • Urbana Police Department has one dog trained in narcotics detection and tracking.
  • UI Police have two dogs; one trained in narcotics detection, the second is an EOD detection dog, trained to find bombs.
  • Champaign County Sheriff’s Office has one EOD K-9 assigned to court security and three other dogs trained in narcotics and tracking. Those three are assigned to law enforcement.
  • District 10 State Police have two dogs, both trained in bite work, criminal apprehension, tracking and drug detection.

For more information, call (888) 595 – DOGS (3647) or click here

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