Gloria Napier and Her Search-and-Rescue Dogs Help Find What’s Lost

Working as a search-and-rescue dog handler has become something of a full-time vocation for Napier over the course of the last 24 years.

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

Training’s not over ’til Gloria’s muddy or bloody. Or both.”

Of all the things Gloria Napier’s teammates say about her, that may be the most telling, because it shows exactly how dedicated she is to her volunteer job. In all fairness, that job—working as a search-and-rescue (SAR) dog handler—has become something of a full-time vocation over the course of the last 24 years. And the training is what she and her dogs, these days an 8-year-old yellow Lab named Pearl and a 2-year-old black Lab named Finley, go through regularly to keep up their skills—running through dense woods or abandoned buildings, scaling hills and valleys, or climbing over downed trees.

Sometimes they’re training to look for a child who ran away or an elderly person who wandered off. Sometimes they’re practicing finding victims of crimes or suicides. Either way, over the course of the past 17 years (which is when Napier, her husband, and four others co-founded Buckeye Search and Rescue Dogs), Napier, her teammates, and their canines have tackled subzero temperatures, deep lakes, dense forests, smoldering buildings, and the wreckage of natural disasters in search of missing persons. “This is the type of job that can really humble you,” Napier says. “It’s frustrating at times. It’s heartbreaking at times. But it’s an honor to be able to do this.” 

My husband and I are kind of an unusual entity in search and rescue in that we have both had people go missing,” says Napier, Pearl and Finley by her side. Both incidents happened in Greater Cincinnati decades ago, well before K9 SAR was a thing. In both cases, it took way longer than it should have to find the people in question. And in both cases, Napier and her husband were devastated when the bodies were finally found.

When Napier read years later about Carolyn Hebard, a pioneer in the K9 SAR industry whose dogs searched for missing people worldwide after earthquakes, bridge collapses, and more, her interest in the field was piqued. “It blended everything I love,” she says, noting her fondness for spending time outdoors, the fact that “I could have empathy for the families who are missing loved ones,” and the fact that “I love having that working relationship with dogs.” 

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

She began volunteering as a trail runner—hiding on practice trails so dogs in training could learn to track scents. After that, she spent two years “flanking” for other dog/handler teams (basically serving as a second set of human eyes on searches). Finally, in 1998, she began training her first SAR dog, a Lab named Emma. “Back then there really were no certified dogs in Ohio,” says Napier, so she took certification classes out of state. (SAR dogs can be certified in everything from underwater human remains detection to “urban man-trailing.”) There, she learned how to read the dog and understand its body language. “My thought [was]: I can re-train it if I mess up, [but] Emma’s thinking: ‘I don’t know if I can re-train you,’ ” says Napier, laughing. “Finally, I learned to just go with her. She was just amazing—a great first search dog.” 

No two search dogs are alike, Napier notes, but there are a few traits they all share: “Basically, we’re looking for that dog  that’s a pain in the butt at home—independent, high energy, high drive, high intellect, doesn’t get frightened easily, willing to face challenges confidently, and loves to play.” Maybe most important of all, though, is the dog’s ability to find and follow scent without getting distracted. “The bigger the nose, the more scent receptors they have,” says Napier, “so it can be a bit more challenging for a smaller dog.”

That said, Napier’s seen plenty of small SAR dogs in her day—dachshunds, yorkie-poos and others can be great cadaver dogs, she notes—but “our team tends to have larger dogs—German shepherds, Belgian Malinois, bloodhounds, Labs, mixed breeds—because we do a lot of wilderness work, so we want a dog that can maneuver easily over downed trees” and maintain stamina on lengthy searches. 

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

Though there are some adult dog exceptions (notably Finley, adopted by the Napiers in October and just beginning cadaver dog training at age 2), training for SAR dogs generally starts when they are puppies, and includes: obedience training; imprinting them on odors (either of live humans or of decomposing ones, depending on what kinds of searches the dogs will do); distraction training (throwing out food or animal bones to try and throw the dogs off the scent); and getting them used to odd surfaces—places like boats and dense forests, where searches are often conducted. It also includes motivation, in the form of special treats and toys the dogs only get while doing search work, which ensures that they love doing their jobs.

In the end, she notes, “Dogs have used their noses for thousands of years to find food, to find mates, to find shelter. All we’re doing is taking the natural ability of that dog [and] teaching them to look for what we want them to look for.” 

Off duty, it’s hard to tell the difference between Pearl and Finley and any other well-trained pet dogs; Pearl sleeps on the ground quietly, Finley gently paws at Napier when he’s bored, and both happily accept pets and love from visitors. But when the call comes in for a search, their focus abruptly changes. In fact, says Napier, “Some things we have to spell. W-O-R-K is one. When the phone rings, they can tell—probably because my tone of voice, my demeanor changes—it’s time for a search. They become very excited, but they also just kind of step up.”

K9 SAR dogs are only certified as part of a team; in other words, the handler is just as important as the dog. “These are our pets,” says Napier. “They’re our partners. They watch our body language as closely as we watch their body language. There’s a connection there.” 

So what exactly makes a good SAR dog handler? First off, says Napier, “We don’t get paid to do this; we’re volunteers. We actually pay money to do this. A lot of money.” She adds, “This is like being a volunteer firefighter, almost—you could get a call in the middle of the night from a handler two hours away who needs help. You can get there just as they find the person. And you get to turn around and go back home.” 

Handlers also have to be certified in a bevy of things, including human and canine first aid; CPR and AED; search management planning and operations; hazmat awareness; crime-scene preservation; and incident management. And handlers have to be in decent physical shape, capable of running either right alongside or just behind a fast-moving dog. “You really have to be in it for the right reason,” says Napier. “If you love to be out in the summer when it’s hot and sticky and sweaty and in the winter when it’s cold and wet, then it’s perfect for you.”

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

In 2005, post-Hurricane Katrina, Napier, Emma, and a team of three other dog/handler pairs camped for six days at a Mississippi fairground after being called down by law enforcement officials. Each day, Napier and the other handlers took their dogs to a structure that had been decimated by the storm, figured out which direction the storm had been blowing when it left, and then had the dogs sniff as far out from the debris field as they could, looking for signs of life or human remains. 

Together, Napier and Emma braved knee-deep mud, snakes, alligators, debris-covered swimming pools and endless piles of distracting (for a dog, anyway) household wreckage, including fridges and freezers full of rotting food. Every night, Emma would wrap up work filthy and exhausted, and Napier would bathe her at the campground so she was ready to start again the next day. They never found anyone, but Napier and Emma did manage to help local safety officials clear dozens of wreckage sites. 

“I get a lot of e-mails from people saying, This would be such a cool thing to do with my dog,” says Napier. When she sends them an e-mail detailing what it’s really like, “99.98 percent of the time I never hear from the person again.” 

It’s easy to think of SAR missions always having happy endings, but the truth is there is a sad component to this work. “Sometimes it’s not the outcome you had hoped for,” Napier says. “The whole time you’re doing these searches, especially if it’s a child, you’re praying: Please let it be curled up somewhere on somebody’s back porch asleep. 

Regardless of the outcome, families are generally very appreciative. “A lot of searches they’ll come up and want to meet the dogs and thank the handlers,” says Napier. “It’s really touching. I think from having been there—you know what their anguish is.”

Still, there are plenty of success stories. Once, one of her teammates found an elderly man with a broken hip whose first words were, “I could use a little help here.” Another time, a fellow teammate was deployed to help find a 7-year-old boy. “They had searched all day and it was almost beginning to be dark and they called in the dogs,” says Napier. “This massive bloodhound named Ruby, within 15 minutes, tracked right to him. The first thing he said was, ‘I want my mommy!’ ”

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

In fact, the surprisingly good news about SAR is that “95 percent of the live people who have gotten lost—child wandered away, grandpa went to the store and didn’t come home, somebody lost in a park—are found before we even arrive on scene,” says Napier. “That’s the best search ever.” 

Napier also wants people to know how much K9 SAR has grown in the 20-plus years she’s been doing it. “At one point in time, that resource just didn’t exist,” she says. “Now there are multiple good K9 search and rescue teams, many in Ohio. They work together, they train together. It’s been humbling to be even just a teeny tiny part of that.” 

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