Let’s be honest. Dogs are more than just pets. They’re man’s best friend, trail partner, vacuum cleaner, and little spoon (or maybe big spoon) all wrapped up in one. In the world of search and rescue (SAR), though, canine companions have proven themselves much more than that. They’re workers, the unsung heroes of emergency services, perusing the woods in the dead of night to search for our missing loved ones. It takes a special type of dog to ignore a fleeing deer or a pile of garbage and stay on task, but it also takes a special person to be that canine’s partner. SAR dog handlers are the folks behind the scenes who willingly volunteer hundreds of hours and invest thousands of dollars for the sake of communities in need. By their canine’s side day and night, these handlers endure the elements and brave the hazards so we may have some ease of mind. Meet Teresa and Teresa, two handlers in the Blue Ridge who share more than just a name and a love of dogs.
A Walk in the Woods
It was the summer of 2007. Teresa Cummings was busy wrapping up the evening chores on her property in Oxford, N.C., when she realized something was terribly wrong: her 23-month-old son Connor was missing. Cummings ran through the woods near her house, frantically searching for Connor to no avail. Soon, emergency personnel and nearby community members were gathered at the Cummings residence, determined to find the toddler. By now, Cummings had realized that something else was wrong: the family golden retriever Sandy had also mysteriously disappeared. Hours went by and the evening had long turned dark on the search party. Still, neither Connor nor Sandy had been found. Cummings’ anxiety began to worsen with every passing minute, fearful of the worst.
The next day, nearly 250 volunteers came together to again search the woods, on foot, by horseback, and even aboard all-terrain vehicles. All eyes were on Granville County as the community meticulously searched every square inch of forest. Finally, after more than 24 hours had passed since the boy’s initial disappearance, a member of the search party heard a bark. He found both Connor and Sandy only a mile from the Cummings’ home, happy and healthy. Connor was barefoot and had a few cuts and bruises, but aside from that he was virtually unscathed and entirely oblivious to the massive toddlerhunt that had taken place.
“God made angels,” Cummings says, “ours just happens to have four legs and wags a tail.”
The pair had crossed countless creeks and major highways, managing to slide past the radar of the hundreds involved with the search and rescue efforts. According to Cummings, Sandy was never the type of dog to exhibit any particularly strong sense of loyalty to Connor—or anyone in the family for that matter. Mellow, quiet, and borderline lazy, Sandy was “an unlikely candidate at best” for acting so heroically, says Cummings.
“The one time she needed to do something, she did it,” Cummings says. “She could have filet mignons every day for the rest of her life and I’d be okay with it.”
Inspired by Sandy and the events that had unfolded, Cummings purchased a bloodhound just a couple months later and began training with the National Association of Search and Rescue (NASR). Having had a number of years’ experience training show dogs, Cummings was no stranger to the process. What did surprise her, though, was the vast array of skills she would need to acquire before becoming certified. From rigorous wilderness medical training to certifications in handling blood-borne pathogens, hazardous materials, and canine first aid, Cummings has devoted hundreds of hours (and personal dollars) into ensuring she can provide the best service to her community.
“When Connor disappeared, we found that there were limited resources of who we could call to help,” Cummings recalls. “I remember walking out in those woods thinking, if I can keep one family from ever going through this, I’ll be content.”
Cummings has since had a second child and trained a number of other SAR dogs, but she says that Sandy is still around and one of the best dogs the family has ever had.
“She’s a little fat now, but she’s totally the babysitter and is always somewhere she can keep an eye on things.”
Breed Golden Retriever
Favorite treat Rawhides
Best trait Tolerance
Weakness Anything and everything that looks edible
A Family Reunited
Teresa MacPherson has grown up around dogs her whole life, working specifically with SAR units since the late 1980s. As a team member of FEMA’s disaster dog program and a handler for the Virginia Search and Rescue Dog Association, MacPherson has seen it all, including missing children, wandering Alzheimer’s patients, and bombing victims.
“It’s a difficult line of work,” MacPherson says, “but I love it because it helps people.”
MacPherson has been at the forefront of aid provided by SAR dogs, traveling across the world to help others in need. She and her K-9 partners have been on hand to help at some of the most devastating disasters to date, including the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing; the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina; the Haiti earthquake in 2008, and the 2011 tsunami in Japan. She’s seen lives ravaged, cities completely leveled, and communities torn apart, yet she takes solace in knowing that, little by little, she and her K-9s can help mend these broken areas.
“Closure is such a terribly overused term,” MacPherson says, “but it’s still good to know you can provide some sense of that to these families. The hardest part is obviously when the outcome isn’t positive.”
Despite having worked in a variety of challenging and dismal circumstances for over 20 years, MacPherson recalls one instance in her hometown of Bristow, Va., where she truly grasped just how important her dogs and her line of work were to the community at large.
It was an unbearably hot evening in late August of 2002. MacPherson had received a phone call from the local law enforcement notifying her of a family who was worried about their 85-year-old grandmother. The grandmother, who was battling Alzheimer’s, had disappeared earlier that day. MacPherson readied her SAR dog, Georgia, and headed to the nearby Prince William Forest Park. It was already past 9 o’clock at night, and MacPherson knew the law enforcement officers had already been searching for the grandmother all day with no success. She followed Georgia’s lead, though, and within 20 minutes, she heard a bark from deep within the woods.
“I came upon the grandmother who had tripped over a log and was lying, half naked and dehydrated, on the ground,” MacPherson says.
Despite having collapsed from heat exhaustion and dehydration, the grandmother was alive. Had Georgia not found the woman, the family’s grandmother would not have made it through the night.
“When I saw the relief in the family’s eyes as we returned from the woods, I knew that they were probably expecting the worse,” MacPherson says. “When we can help save a life, it’s very rewarding. That’s absolutely why it’s my passion.”
Georgia was MacPherson’s right-hand dog for a number of years, but passed away recently. MacPherson is now on her sixth operational SAR dog, but she says it’s hard to move on after the loss of such a close partner.
“Dogs’ eyes are full of love and trust,” she says. “It’s hard when you lose a dog, because you know it’s inevitable. It’s the nature of this line of work. When you form such an amazing bond with these dogs, seeing them go is like losing family.”
Favorite toy Tennis ball
Best trait Born to search
Weakness Surfing, a favorite pastime that involved leaping from the banks of a river to land gracefully on a floating raft and riding out the wake.