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Time Off with: Lisa Davis

Lisa Davis, manager of animal resources for Oncology, is training her dog J. J. for search-and-rescue.

For J. J., there is nothing quite so fine as a Thursday evening. That is when the 7-year-old black Lab, along with a few other canine pals, heads out to the countryside to play hide-and-seek.

But it’s far more than just a game, for J. J. is training for canine search and rescue. It is hard work. Search scenarios are set up, people hide, dogs find them. And it is important work, for these dogs are being trained to do nothing less than save peoples’ lives.

Clearly, J. J. thrives on all this. “He lives for Thursday evenings,” says owner Lisa Davis, manager of animal resources for Oncology. “He can tell what’s going to happen by the clothes I put on. He actually knows the days of the week. He knows when it’s Thursday.”

Search dogs are trained to find articles, cadavers or human subjects. J. J. is learning to search for the latter. It takes about a year to teach a dog to find lost subjects. Training begins with lots of play and ball-throwing. Then someone runs away; the puppy chases after him. The person hides; the dog finds him. The person hides farther and farther away; the dog learns to track him down. “The dogs have to be strongly motivated to human scent, so they don’t chase squirrels or chipmunks,” explains Davis. “They need to understand that finding human beings is more rewarding than finding wild animals.”

Davis and her husband are currently putting in 10 to15 hours a week training J. J. so that he can search for subjects on behalf of Chesapeake Search Dogs, a volunteer, nonprofit organization that provides canine search resources to authorities in the Chesapeake Bay region. The organization currently has 17 operational dogs of various breeds—golden retrievers, German shepherds, Labs, Rottweilers, bloodhounds and more.

Last year, these dogs did 68 searches. The looked for Alzheimer’s and mental patients, potential suicides, missing hunters, hikers and campers, and small children. They searched for articles, particularly evidence, such as guns and other weapons. The group does requested searches only, taking care not to overstep its bounds. “A search is a classic mystery,” says Davis. “You go in never knowing what you’ll find. You have to plan for a potentially life-threatening emergency.”

Some of the organization’s urban search-and-rescue dogs worked at the Pentagon following the 9/11 attacks. More recently, in March 2004, dogs specially trained to search on water looked for victims of the water taxi accident in the Baltimore harbor. In a small boat with two handlers, a dog would travel back and forth over the water, narrowing down the area for divers. “Much of a search dog’s work is eliminating areas, not necessarily finding anyone,” explains Davis, who served as the vet tech on the scene.

A vet tech by training, Davis worked as such in an NIH lab before joining Hopkins last September as a manager of animal resources. “Animal welfare is extremely important to me, and in this position, I can reach more people and have a bigger effect,” she says. Based in the Cancer Research Building (CRB I) which has its own supply of mice, rats and rabbits, Davis oversees animal welfare, policy, staffing and budgeting and is currently planning the animal resources for CRB II, now under construction.

A longtime animal lover, she has, in addition to J. J., a horse, three cats, 10 pet birds, and two dogs: a German short-haired pointer and a yellow Lab. Of them all, J. J. is the most intelligent, she says proudly, noting his AKC obedience title plus the fact that he has qualified in fly ball, a crowd-pleasing team sport for dogs. “Search and rescue was always something I wanted to do. I got lucky: I had a great dog.”

—Anne Bennett Swingle



Johns Hopkins Medicine

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