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Engineering professor, dogs assist in state search and rescue operations

Date: 09/01/2012

When he's not doing research or in the classroom teaching students about electrical engineering, Steven Stochaj's time goes to the dogs -- literally.

Steven Stochaj kneels under a tree, his two dog sitting in front of him.
Steven Stochaj and his certified search and rescue dogs, Striking and Splash, are active in Mesilla Valley Search and Rescue, a non-profit volunteer organization that assists New Mexico State Police. Striking, left, also was recently selected to be Striking the "Wonder Dog," and will retrieve the kicking tees from the football field after all Aggie kick offs during home games.

Since 1994, the New Mexico State University computer and electrical engineering professor has worked with numerous pet owners training search and rescue dogs.

Stochaj said he knew little about search and rescue dogs until he and his wife Nancy Chanover, professor at NMSU's Department of Astronomy, got a puppy -- a highly energetic yellow Labrador retriever -- and witnessed a demo on the drill.

"We were looking for things to keep the puppy busy," he said. "One of the local search and rescue groups...demonstrated how dogs find things. We thought it was something our dog, Roxy, might be able to do. We tried it out and it worked."

Search and rescue certification usually takes about two years.

Because dogs already have a keen sense of smell, the actual challenge isn't teaching the animals "how to smell," but rather, distinguishing and understanding what they are smelling, and how that relates to the task of finding someone who is missing.

Stochaj likened the concept of search and rescue training to that of teaching freshman students engineering theories.

"The whole thing is completely fascinating to me," he said. "It's a little bit challenging because it's a constant struggle to put all these different situations in a context that makes sense to the dogs. That's the same thing we try to do with engineering students: take a strange concept and put it into a context that students can make sense out of."

There are two kinds of "smelling" techniques that dogs may employ, tracking and air-scenting. Tracking is usually reserved for fresh trails, with dogs working on the leash, while air-scenting, done off-leash, is used to cover larger areas when missing persons have been gone for quite some time. Stochaj trains his dogs to be able to use both methods.

"My wife had one of the best tracking dogs in the state, Phoebe," he said. "There was a little autistic boy who ran away from home out in Alamogordo. They took Phoebe in the backyard, and it started sniffing all the places the little boy went, and actually found where he dug under the fence. Then the dog started tracking to the desert, and another dog was dropped off there and found the boy hiding underneath the bushes. It's really neat how the tracking dog and the air-scenting dog worked together on that one."

Team members whose dogs are certified to perform a search and rescue operate on a voluntary basis. They are called in to work by Mesilla Valley Search and Rescue, a non-profit volunteer organization that also certifies individuals to work with ATV and ground team search and rescue operations. The New Mexico State Police does not have its own search and rescue unit.

Before MVSAR can get involved in a missing person case, New Mexico State Police must first rule out the possibility of criminal activity.

"Anytime [there is] a drowning, it's considered a potential criminal case in New Mexico," said Stochaj. "I guess that's because there's not that much water."

He added that in order to volunteer with MVSAR, one must be flexible with his own availability.

"In general, you have to like the outdoors and have a flexible personality, because it's always going to be a disruption to your schedule," he explained. "For the most part, we wind up being called to stay out all night or be up ridiculously early in the morning."

"A lot of people want to volunteer," said Vic Villalobos, MVSAR president. "However, it's a huge time commitment."

Stochaj described one case, in which a missing woman was found up in the Rabbit Ears Plateau. Because she had injured herself, the woman was unable to climb back down, and had to be transferred by helicopter, but due to hazardous weather conditions, the helicopter was unable to land.

"We had to stay there overnight," said Stochaj. "[After the woman was picked up], I'd never come down a hill so fast. I had a Ph.D. student taking an exam that afternoon, and I had to make sure I was back [at school] to sit in on the committee. Those are the kind of games you have to play, juggling everything."

Although not all the searches and rescues have a happy ending, Stochaj said he hadn't realized the impact of the work done by MVSAR.

"A lot of times we find people who have passed away, and that is very sad, but I hadn't really appreciated the closure that finding them brings to the family."

Stochaj now has two mission-ready search and rescue dogs, Splash and Striking, and his wife has one in training.

There are currently a total of five mission-ready dogs in MVSAR; four others are in the process of being certified.

To learn more about the work Stochaj does with Mesilla Valley Search and Rescue visit www.mvsar.org.

Written by Isabel Rodriguez

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