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Lending a helping nose

Bob and Sandie Bruins, of Silver Lake, saw a need for more search-and-rescue dogs and the volunteers to work with them. They decided to form a nonprofit organization called Minnesota Canine Search, Rescue and Tracking. The Bruins and their two bloodhounds, three additional canines and other volunteers answer a call for help whenever the phone rings.

The Bruins’ interest began in 2014, when Sandie searched with others in the community for a missing man.

Bleu, a bloodhound, goes to work. Contributed photo

“A man disappeared from Howard Lake, and we were part of the team that found his remains in a cornfield near Hutchinson,” said Sandie. “That’s when I was hooked. I spoke with the search coordinator, who introduced me to Steve Wald, a bloodhound trainer from Austin, Minnesota. We already had a bloodhound named Bleu, and we wanted to get into search and rescue work.”

Over six months, Wald taught Bob and Sandie the basics, which Bob believes Bleu already knew. Sandie said, “They’re naturals at it. We just train them to focus on looking for a human, not for deer or other critters. Bleu is still training me. Any mistakes are usually made by the handlers, not the dogs.”

Now officially named Bubba Bleu Moonshine, the 140-pound bloodhound has become somewhat of a celebrity in the search-and-rescue world. In a search near Watkins, he confirmed that a little girl had not wandered off, but had been put into a vehicle in the driveway. (A search-and-rescue service in Northern Minnesota took over the case.)

During trainings, Bleu has found people 24 to 36 hours after they left a scent. Most bloodhounds can follow a trail 13 to 20 hours after the human scent was left, even if just two human cells were dropped. (According to Bob, the clipping from a pinky fingernail has thousands of cells in it.) Some handlers believe bloodhounds can follow a trail several days after it was made.

Sandie said, “Bleu was integral in locating a man in Coon Rapids five days after he went missing. Unfortunately, he was deceased, but at least the family could begin the healing process.”

There are several levels of certification by the American Man-Trailing Police Work Dog Association, headquartered in Cloverdale, Indiana. Bleu is certified as a Distinguished Expert Man Trailer, the second level from the top. Sandie attends the week-long spring conference with one of their dogs every year. She said, “They have to recertify every two years to make sure they continue to be at the top of their game.”

Brenda Wendt, of Iowa, owns and handles Thorn, a Dutch shepherd, and works through the organization Minnesota Canine Search, Rescue and Tracking. Contributed photo

In addition to Bleu, the organization now has four other dogs and their handlers. K9 Bootlegger Jack, a bloodhound owned by the Bruins, is handled by Sandie. Paul Matheson, of Eden Prairie, owns and handles two Portuguese water dogs, McKenzie and Bridger. Brenda Wendt, an Iowan, owns and handles Thorn, a Dutch shepherd.

The Bruins and other volunteers in The Minnesota Search, Rescue and Tracking Association have been called to searches not only throughout Minnesota, but also in Iowa and North Dakota. Sandie serves as president of the organization, while Bob is the treasurer. The secretary, Kay Hoernemann, who lives in Glencoe, became involved because she regrets that when a family member went missing in the past, there was no search-and-rescue service available.

Kay said, “What Bob and Sandie do touched my heart. It really intrigued me, and I began to go to monthly meetings and helped out by being a hider. That is a person who walks a trail, leaving a scent, and stays at a determined spot until the dog finds you.”

In addition to helping with training and, of course, taking minutes at meetings, Kay has become the organization’s chief fundraiser. Although there is never a charge for search-and-rescue activities, there are costs. The Bruins’ private transportation business does not cover the cost of operating the heated ambulance in which the dogs and seven volunteers can ride to search locations. Additional expenses include medical kits, a computer center in the ambulance and dog certification costs.

The team, led by one of their bloodhounds, works a search in the Fargo area. Contributed photo

Kay saw the need and took over the annual fundraiser. She said, “I’m basically the fund-raising committee. Sandie and Bob work on it, too, but we needed someone to get volunteers to get donations for the silent auction and arrange the venue. This year, I called the Twins and the Vikings, which Sandie had done in the past. And there are so many wonderful local people willing to be involved.”

Bob ruefully recalled that a ball donated by the Twins last year didn’t make it to the silent auction. He explained, “One of the dogs, Jack, has a thing about balls, and he got it. So we ended up paying the fundraiser for it.”

Kay has embraced the fundraising responsibilities. She said, “We are not finicky who we beg from for gift cards, products and craft items. We had 80 items last year for the silent auction, and we also have a beer fest. We’re grateful the King Pin in Plato donates the space for our event, which is scheduled on March 9 this year.”

Another volunteer, Paul Matheson, has an entirely different interest. He’s in charge of cold cases and human remains. His two Portuguese water dogs work with him. Nine-year-old Mackenzie is certified in land and water search for human-related remains, while 2-year-old Bridger was certified last fall on land human remains. Both dogs are certified by American Working Dogs and by the Indiana-based group.

Paul said, “Bridger is in training for trailing, which is what Bleu and Jack are excellent at. McKenzie is also a therapy dog, certified by Therapy Dogs International. She visits hospitals, nursing homes and schools, so she does something besides find dead things.”

“Search and rescue is nothing more than a game to a dog,” Paul said, “using their natural skills, using their nose–just trained to find a specific odor. We hone their hunting skills to hunt for what you’re looking for and how you’re looking for it.”

Sandie and her bloodhound, Jack. Contributed photo

Working dogs also have a life away from the trail. Paul explained, “Our dogs go virtually everywhere with us–to the coffee shop–where they stay on the bench outside. They greet people, they hear all kinds of noises, they are photographed, and it becomes training. They learn to be patient and stay where we put them.”

Sandie added, “Bleu also does a lot of public appearances, as he loves everyone and thinks everyone loves him.”

Training the dogs may be the easier part. Spreading the word about search, rescue and tracking services is more difficult. Sandie said, “I dedicate several days per year to go out to various law enforcement agencies and fire departments with Bleu, just to introduce the organization or to remind them that we are still here and willing to help whenever they call–day or night. We also do demonstrations and trainings with any agency that requests them.”

“Although there are multiple search-and-rescue organizations in Minnesota, some police officials don’t know about them,” said Bob. “Or sometimes they wait too long to call us out. Sometimes a find is defined as uncovering police evidence, not the missing person.”

“We should be one of the first calls when someone goes missing, not the last,” said Sandy. “When a hunter went missing in Pine County this fall, we didn’t get the call for a week. Then there was 6 inches of snow on the ground, and he hasn’t been found yet. It’s frustrating and heartbreaking.”

“We once left for Iowa at 1 a.m. The ambulance (donated by the Kasota Fire Department) is ready to go 24-7,” said Bob.

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