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Pet detectives:the nose that knows

For millions of people, pets are more than just animals who share a living space – they are valued family members. And when beloved pets go missing, it is a nightmarish experience. Owners are often confused and do not know where and how to look for their pets. In US, Kat Albrecht runs PHI, which is the only pet detective agency. And guess who helps her find those four-legged friends? Her search dogs, of course! Read on to find more about them.

Holding the feisty terrier by her collar, Hardin Weaver gives the search command. “Susie, are you ready? Search!” Immediately Susie lurches forward, pulling hard in her harness as she sniffs the air currents in search of the scent that she is trained to find. But unlike most other search-and-rescue dogs, Susie is not searching for a lost child, a missing hiker, or even a confused Alzheimer’s patient—what she is searching for is a lost cat!

Susie is one of several search dogs that are currently being trained by pet detective Kat Albrecht, President of Pet Hunters International (PHI), US — the only pet detective academy that trains and certifies humans and search dogs to track lost pets.

PHI’s mission:

Based in Fresno, California, PHI’s mission is to certify professional pet detectives who will conduct aggressive, physical searches for lost pets using newly developed law enforcement-based techniques and technologies normally used to find lost people. Kat developed PHI in 1997 (while she was still a police detective) after her bloodhound A.J. escaped her yard and was lost. Kat used another search-and-rescue dog to track A.J. down, thus giving her the idea to train search dogs to track lost pets.

Techniques used:

Using investigative techniques such as probability theory, behavioural profiling, and searches with scent-detection dogs, Kat has helped more than 1800 pet owners locate their lost dogs, cats, snakes, turtles and horses. Kat believes that training professio-nal pet detectives who can assist pet owners in making aggressive attempts to recover a lost pet will have a tremendous impact on reducing the homeless pet population. Pet dogs and cats who escape from their owners’ care make up a large percentage of the “stray” and “homeless” animals.

MAR technique:

The MAR (Missing Animal Response) K9 certification programme is the most visible aspect of PHI. In order to be accepted into the training programme, dogs like Susie are evaluated to make sure they have the appropriate temperament and drive. Dogs who show fear, aggression, or a low level of enthusiasm will not pass the evaluation. Dogs who absolutely love cats are trained as cat detection dogs using methods similar to those used to train drug and bomb detection dogs. In Susie’s case, her training “reward” for finding the hidden crate that contains a “target cat” is the opportunity to lick, nuzzle, and play with the kitty.

Dogs who love to play with other dogs are trained to track the scent trail of lost dogs just as police bloodhounds are trained to track lost people. Dogs who love treats and are highly motivated by food are trained to search for reptiles, ferrets, cats, and other small animals using a training method known as “specific scent” where the dog is trained to “smell a scent, find the matching scent.” With specific scent, a search dog can be used to search for a lost snake one day and the next day she can be used to search for a missing cat, ferret, turtle or other lost pet.

Search-and-rescue:

There is a very basic principle in search-and-rescue work—you will have a higher probability of finding a lost person if you know how and where to search. In the case of lost people, the tactics and techniques that are used to search for a missing hiker are very different from those used to search for a missing deer hunter. Sadly, most people don’t know how and where to search for a lost pet. The methods that should be used to search for a dog who bolted in a blind panic due to a thunderstorm are very different than those that should be used to search for an outdoor-cat who has suddenly vanished. Various factors will influence the distance a lost pet will travel, the speed they will travel, and the likelihood that they will be found. These factors include the species involved (dog vs. cat vs. ferret), the temperament of the animal (gregarious vs. skittish), the circumstances surrounding the disappearance (dog that digs out to explore a scent vs. indoor-cat that escapes outside), the population density (a dog lost in the Sierra Nevada Mountains vs. a dog lost in New York), and the environment (a hot July day in the desert vs. during a snow storm). MAR Technicians learn how to analyse individual lost pet cases and develop a specific search plan that takes into account all of these variables, thus answering the critical questions of how and where to search for a particular lost pet. For example, dogs with friendly temperaments are likely to be found closer to their home (they will typically run up to the first person who calls them) than dogs with skittish, fearful temperaments (they will typically run away from people who call them). Also, people who find a loose dog who has a fearful, shy temperament will often misinterpret the cowering and shivering as “abuse” and will tend to keep the dog instead of trying to find its owner.

MAR Technicians certified by PHI are trained to use high-tech equipment including amplified listening devices and search cameras, humane traps with baby monitors to capture panicked lost cats who are hiding, how to develop a specific search plan, how to identify the high probability search areas for a lost pet, and how to collect and analyse physical evidence. In the past, MAR Technicians have even used a forensic anthropologist to analyse a bone to solve one lost cat investigation and a DNA test on a cat whisker to solve another.

Trap-and-reunite:

One recovery method pioneered by PHI is “TAR” or “trap-and-reunite” services. TAR involves the simple use of baited humane traps and surveillance equipment to recover displaced cats and has already resulted in the recovery of several hundred “lost” indoor-only cats that had escaped outdoors. Most of these were cats with skittish, fearful temperaments that escaped into unfamiliar territory and responded just as the PHI behavioural patterns predicted: when cats are injured or afraid, they hide in silence.

Thus, the PHI dogs are offering a much needed service that is helping to reduce the homeless pet population, save the lives of companion animals, and assist people who have no where else to turn. Kudos to Kat Albrecht, the Sherlock Holmes of pet detectives, for doing such a wonderful job.

(Kathy “Kat” Albrecht is a police officer-turned-pet detective and President of Pet Hunters International (PHI), an international pet detective academy. Kat and her search dogs (Weimaraner search dog Rachel and two police bloodhounds, A.J. and Chase) have successfully located criminals, physical evidence, and missing persons. Kat lives in Clovis, California with her two search dogs and three cats. She has also published ‘The lost pet chronicles: Adventures of a K-9 cop turned pet detective’(Bloomsbury, April 2004) which tells the unique story of her transition from tracking criminals to tracking lost pets. For more information on Pet Hunters International, visit www.pethuntersinternational.com)