How K9 units use scent to find missing people with dementia

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I received an email last night from a local police search and rescue team. The fact that I got an email at all was interesting, but what the email said really intrigued me. 

This group is starting a program to help people locate missing family members or friends with dementia. If someone with dementia gets lost, and a K9 unit is needed to help locate them, this “Scent Savers” program can help.

White Oak Borough, Pennsylvania – The White Oak EMS Search and Rescue Team (WOSAR) is pleased to announce a program developed to create human scent preservation kits (“Scent Savers”).

A Scent Saver scent preservation kit will provide the WOSAR’s K9 Unit an additional tool in searching for lost family and friends. The kit includes a storage jar, sterile pad, gloves, label and a security tag to verify that the kit was not tampered with. There is also a personal information page to provide the Search Team should the person go missing.

When a Search Team responds to a missing person scene, they often have a “trailing” or “tracking” K9. These dogs are trained to search for a specific individual based on a scent presented to them. For example, if a child goes missing, the K9 handler may present the child’s blanket to the dog to track for that particular scent, since the child’s scent would be on their blanket. A serious challenge however, is locating a “scent article” that has not been cross-contaminated with another person’s scent. The same child’s blanket would likely also include the scent of a parent or possibly a sibling.

The pad included with the Scent Saver Kit is wiped over certain areas of the body and placed into a sealed jar to create an uncontaminated scent article. That article, should the person go missing, can be presented to the K9 to track from.

I thought this was a super cool idea, and had literally never thought of anything like that. So, this is actually something you can do at home, even if your locate police unit doesn’t have this program. Of course, the best cure is prevention: do not let a person with dementia leave home without a caregiver.

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Rachael Wonderlin has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of two published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. She owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting company.

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