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Jennifer Jordan Hall

When you think of search and rescue (SAR) dogs, you probably think of German Shepherd Dogs, Belgian Malinois, or other large breeds. Though these big dogs might be what you’re used to seeing, SAR dogs are not limited to specific breeds. Case in point: “Pocket,” the 10-year-old Parson Russell Terrier. This rugged little terrier pleasantly surprises anyone who works with her for the first time. Owner-handler Jennifer Jordan Hall of Louisville, Kentucky, has worked with the breed in SAR before, and knows that great things come in even the smallest packages.

Not only is Pocket able to locate missing people, the dog has a unique talent: identifying Indigenous burial sites, often ones that are thousands of years old. Too often, Indigenous burial grounds are paved over or built over, disturbing what should be a respected place of rest. Especially at these older sites, it can be hard to identify that they’re human burial grounds. Pocket has a nose for finding even the smallest traces of human remains, and Hall has an endless list of stories of Pocket’s successful discovery of remains, as well as living missing people, well after hope was lost. Because of Pocket’s unique talent and powerful nose, she has been awarded the 2023 Award for Canine Excellence in the Search and Rescue Dog category.

Each year, the AKC Humane Fund awards five dogs who do extraordinary things in the service of humankind in different categories: Uniformed Service K-9, Therapy Dog, Exemplary Companion, Service Dogs, and Search and Rescue Dogs, like Pocket. Dogs in Pocket’s category are those certified to assist in wilderness and urban tracking, natural disasters, mass casualty events, and locating missing people.

An Unconventional Breed for Search and Rescue

Breeds from the Herding Group or Sporting Group are known for their tracking abilities, but don’t count out the terriers! “In Search and Rescue, we train with all these big, wonderful dogs, and then you’ve got us,” says Hall. Her trainer has commented on Pocket’s terrier tenacity many times. “He said, ‘they’ve got the most drive out of any of these dogs.’ I like this breed, and it’s not what you’d typically expect. We had to go through a lot to defy expectations.”

Hall first discovered the Parson Russell Terrier’s talent for SAR with a previous PRT named Scout. Hall says that Scout was always eager to learn and very outgoing, and started with AKC Tracking. “Scout got me into it. I realized that I could have a positive impact by working with my dogs to help find the missing.” After giving Tracking a shot, Hall realized that Scout was good at it, and really liked it. “I just tried to help her become what she could become,” Hall says. And she’s done the same for her three other SAR dogs since.

Jennifer Jordan Hall

Hall worked with two Parson Russell Terriers, “Scout” and “Remy,” before getting Pocket. Pocket is currently mentoring her brother, “Wick.” Pocket has been doing SAR since 2014, and Wick began in 2022. “I’ve been really lucky because the dogs have taught each other. Pocket’s learned from Remy and Scout, and she’s helping Wick,” Hall says. “I wouldn’t do a good job with a really big dog, I’m not particularly strong. This dog is just a good fit for me.”

Dedicated to Making a Difference

Throughout her life, Hall has always been looking for ways to help people. Her background is in law, and she says that her career as a lawyer actually benefits her search dog passion. Based on human remains scent evidence that Pocket has found, law enforcement has been able to obtain search warrants. Hall’s also been a human remains expert witness in a death penalty case.

Pocket is now 10 years old, but she’s been doing SAR work since she was one. The PRT is trained not only in Human Remains Detection (HRD), but also has certifications from the International Police Working Dog Association (IPWDA) in Search and Rescue Trailing (finding living people), Water Search, Crime Scene, and Land. She’s also earned her Canine Good Citizen title. Hall starts all of her dogs by finding live people, and then transitions into other disciplines before moving on to HRD. “I personally think it’s a really good way for the dog to learn all the scent detection things,” Hall says.

But Hall and anyone who meets her knows that Pocket isn’t just a SAR dog. Something about Pocket is different, and it makes her incredibly good at what she does. “She’s such a loving dog, and she’s so smart,” says Hall. “She does work so hard. It’s so cool because she’s different than most dogs, and it’s neat for that difference to be recognized. She’s helped so many people.”

“If someone’s missing, you can just see the family feels like they can see [Pocket] is working hard, and they get confidence and they get hope,” Hall says. “And so it’s very emotional to see her connection with families of the missing.”

From Live Detection to Burial Grounds

Pocket has tracked living people’s scents for miles before finding them. Once, Pocket led Hall down a busy street, past people, over a crosswalk, and through a field to track someone. “It was getting dark, and she was really tired, so I stopped her. I was like, ‘Okay, we need to get the truck. We’ll continue tomorrow,’ and she stopped, and then she’s like, ‘I’m not done.'” Pocket went a total of three miles before she found the person. Another time, the terrier tracked a missing teen for six miles, greatly aiding in her search. When the teen was found six months later, she told police that she’d gone exactly where Pocket said she did.

Pocket has gotten so good at SAR that the terrier gets requested by name. One of the harder parts of SAR—specifically human remains detection—is cross-contamination, especially with tiny pieces of bone. Discerning the difference between an animal bone and a human bone presents a challenge, but not for Pocket. Pocket has learned to expertly isolate scents, and when she knows what she’s looking for, she doesn’t stop until she finds it. “We don’t want just any dog that can do this, even though there are other dogs that can,” says Diane Hunter, the Myaamia Heritage Preservation Specialist of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. “I’ve seen [Pocket] identify a tiny, tiny, tiny piece of human bone as human, and totally ignore animal bones. They can tell in a laboratory, but with just a human eye, it’s hard to tell. But Pocket knows the difference.”

Jeremy Pless

Hall had been working with a forensic anthropologist on cold cases, and noted that Pocket was remarkably good at finding disarticulated human remains. They were called to a site to test how the dog would do with historic human remains detection. In this case, they were looking for Indigenous burial sites. At this specific site, there wasn’t concrete evidence that a burial site was there. The teams prior had conducted a few tests, including ground-penetrating radar surveys, before they brought Pocket in.

“I didn’t know what she was going to do,” Hall says, recalling the first time she brought Pocket through a burial site. “She just laid down and did a little cry. She alerted in these different areas, and ended up finding 11 bodies that otherwise were not detected, bodies that the archaeologist attributed to [Pocket’s efforts].”

Pocket’s Contributions to Protecting Indigenous Sites

Hunter emphasizes that Hall is a truly great handler, and allows Pocket to do the best work by educating herself first. “[Hall] listens, she learns, she wants to learn. She asks questions when she’s on a site, so that each time she goes to a site, she knows more than she did before. She’s processing what she’s learned and understanding what needs to be done, and how she can best use Pocket’s talents in a particular situation.”

People who aren’t familiar with Hall and Pocket’s work can be cautious at first. “People will be a little leery because they’ve had an experience somewhere else with another dog,” Hunter says. “But [I assure them that] no, this is different. You will be happy with Pocket.”

Before Pocket visited sites to help identify burial grounds, Hunter says that the Miami Tribe could only do geophysical work. That technology only identifies that there is something under the ground. “Whether it’s a human or a tree root or something else, they could just tell that there was something. And then the only way to know for sure was unfortunately to dig, and that is very distressing.”

Taylor Bryan

For the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and other Indigenous people across the United States, it’s too often the case that ancestral burial grounds are disturbed in the course of constructing new buildings or highways. “For Native people, so often our ancestors are removed from the place where they were buried,” Hunter says. “It’s a very distressing situation when our ancestors cannot remain where they were buried.” Before dogs trained in HRD, having to dig to determine what was below the ground’s surface was usually the only option for these kinds of projects. Hunter says that the earlier Pocket is able to get to the site, the more likely they’ll be able to move the location of a project, so they don’t have to dig at all if human remains are located.

“It’s such a relief to know that our ancestors are not going to be disturbed. It’s such a painful thing for Native people to know what has happened to our ancestors when they were alive, and then again after they’ve died, and to find a way to at least avoid harming their remains. It’s just a very, very powerful change.”

“Pocket has given us an opportunity to care for and protect our ancestors in a way that we have never had before,” Hunter says. “When Pocket says, ‘There are human remains here,’ that changes the whole discussion. We don’t have to argue, ‘Well, shall we try to dig here? Shall we try?’ No, we know now. We’re able to protect our ancestors in a new way.”