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Rescue dogs gaining national reputation

South Georgia Search Dogs Inc. members Michael and Heidy Drawdy conduct a search and rescue training exercise recently with their three-year-old German Shepard, Sam, in Terrell County.

South Georgia Search Dogs Inc. members Michael and Heidy Drawdy conduct a search and rescue training exercise recently with their three-year-old German Shepard, Sam, in Terrell County.

DAWSON — While Michael Drawdy ran off and hid in a wooded area in rural Terrell County on a recent overcast Saturday morning, his wife, Heidy, offered a piece of clothing with Michael’s scent to Sam, a 3-year-old German Shepherd training to become a certified search dog.

Once Sam had the scent, he set out to find Michael.

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Michael Drawdy of South Georgia Search Dogs Inc. keeps pace with his three-year-old German Shepard, Sam, during a recent scent-trail-tracking search and rescue training exercise in Terrell County.

The day of training exercises for members of South Georgia Search Dogs Inc., a volunteer group that trains dogs for specific search and rescue tasks in emergency situations, was part of a required monthly meeting of the organization founded in 1999 to assist with real-life scenarios that can be matters of life and death.

South Georgia Search Dogs is certified by the North American Police Work Dogs Association and is becoming an increasingly more vital part of search and rescue efforts in the region and all along the Eastern Seaboard.

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South Georgia Search Dogs Inc. members Michael and Heidy Drawdy conduct a search and rescue training exercise recently with their three-year-old German Shepard, Sam, in Terrell County.

“The members of our group have made a commitment to try and respond whenever we’re called,” SGSD President Brigitte Basey said. “Word has gotten out through word of mouth about our organization, and we’re registered with GEMA (the Georgia Emergency Management Agency), so we’re getting more and more calls.

“One of our dogs found the bones of a 5-year-old murder victim recently, and we went to the Tuscaloosa area when they had those tornadoes last year. If we can get there, we’re going to do everything we can to respond when called.”

Such commitment has taken South Georgia Search Dog team members into Lee, Chattahoochee, Harris, Marion, Muscogee, Thomas, Russell, Talbott, Taylor and Chambers counties in Georgia, and their expertise has been utilized in neighboring Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Florida. SGSD has even been called to faraway locales such as New Hampshire, Maine and Saba Island in the Netherlands Antilles.

And there was the grueling ordeal of working Louisiana’s Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina.

‘THEY KEPT CALLING US’

“For most of four months, my husband, Wesley, and I went from house to house, mostly in the Ninth Ward, searching for bodies,” Brigette Basey said. “We’d work three weeks, go home for a week, and they’d call us back. We kept saying it was too much, that we couldn’t go back there, but they kept calling us.

“You know, that’s something you really can’t train for. It really worked on us; it took a while for us to decompress after the experience.”

Rod Gilchrist and Janet Fowler started South Georgia Search Dogs Inc. in Albany in 1999. The Baseys helped create a unit in the Columbus area a year later, while the Drawdys established a unit in Thomasville in 2005. Now team members from throughout the region conduct individual training on a weekly basis and meet for mandatory group training sessions, like the one held in Terrell County, at least once a month.

All training, travel and other expenses are the responsibility of individual SGSD members.

“For Michael and me, it was just a matter of combining our passions,” Heidy Drawdy said of joining the search group. “I’ve been a veterinary technician for 20 years, and I’ve taught dog obedience classes in the area. Michael is a great hiker, so we’re enjoying our passions while giving something back.”

South Georgia Search Dog members train various breeds of dogs to perform specific search and rescue tasks. Some are trained to track by scent of specific personal items, some track by “air scent,” while others are taught to search for cadavers. In addition to searches like the ones following natural disasters in New Orleans and Tuscaloosa, the trained dogs also help search for missing children or Alzheimer’s patients.

A TREMENDOUS RESOURCE

Law enforcement agencies in Thomas, Harris and Lee counties, as well as Columbus and Albany police officials have called on the rescue team, as have the GBI, FBI and Department of Natural Resources.

“Those folks are definitely on our call list,” Harris County Sheriff Mike Jolley said. “They’ve worked with us on several cases. We call them when they’re needed, and they’ve shown a willingness to come at the drop of a hat.

“That group works really well with us, and we’re confident that we can depend on them. We have a K-9 Unit, but they deal mostly with drugs. However, when (South Georgia Search Dog members) train in our area, I’ll send deputies out to train with them. We learn from them.”

Thomas County Fire Chief Chris Jones, who also serves as the county’s emergency management director, said the rescue team is a valuable asset for first responder agencies whose budgets are stretched to their limit.

“This unit is a tremendous resource for our county, and there’s no way we could afford the services they provide free of charge on our budget,” Jones said. “We’ve worked closely with Heidy and Mike, and they’re very professional in everything they do. I’m shooting straight with you when I say that, when it comes to the short and long of it, they’re the real deal.

“Every time we’ve had a search call-out that required a dog, they’ve been a viable part of the search. And even when we’ve called them and they might be five states away, they make a phone call and have someone within an hour’s drive contact us. It’s nice to know we have someone here locally with their skills willing to help us.”

SGSD members train for as many different scenarios as possible in as many different locations as possible.

“Our dogs need to be able to work wherever they go,” Brigitte Basey said. “That’s why we’re not shy about taking them into something new. When they’re called, they might have to wade through debris or potentially dangerous situations to do their job.

“Of course, as we learned in New Orleans, there are some things you just can’t prepare for.”

REPUTATION, DEMAND GROWS

As the South Georgia Search Dog team’s reputation has spread, so has demand for its dogs’ services. Basey said the group is now training animals to search for drugs, bombs and even bedbugs.

“By being licensed through the state of Georgia, we go through the same kind of training as police officers,” Basey said. “So many people want to do this because they think it’ll be easy and fun, but they’re not properly trained. We avoid that kind of thing because it could put people’s lives in danger.

“As we’re called on more and more, the travel makes it more expensive to do. Some families make donations when they know we’ve traveled a long way, and some provide meals or hotel rooms. But that’s not why we do this. We just want to give back to our communities.”

And the dogs that are so vital to the team?

“When you find a dog with the right temperament, that’s the one you want to train,” Heidy Drawdy said. “We start training them from day one on basic commands, and it takes as long as two years to get one ready for certification. You know by their body language when they’re ready.

“We all got involved with this team to help others in our community; the dogs ... they do it for praise and a toy.”