Lincoln is one of five 2022 AKC Awards for Canine Excellence recipients. He won the Search and Rescue category. This category recognizes dogs certified to assist in wilderness and urban tracking, natural disasters, mass casualty events, and locating missing people.
It’s only fitting that search and rescue is part of 70-pound Lincoln’s identity. The 5-year-old Flat-Coated Retriever was rescued at birth with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by Jude Frits, a friend of breeder Susan Kravitz-Smith, of Olympia, Washington.
“When Lincoln was born, he was not breathing and his lungs were full of fluid,” says owner-handler Jon Izant, of Seattle. “Jude thought he looked like a perfectly normal puppy, so she sucked out the fluid – and ‘there was a lot.’”
But in the years since then, Izant and Lincoln have been working hard and find themselves as the 2022 AKC Humane Fund Awards for Canine Excellence Search and Rescue winners.
Clearing Way for a Search
Izant and Lincoln are members of King County Search Dogs in Washington, which means they are on call 24/7, 365 days a year. As volunteers, they are not expected to respond to every callout. But they have found themselves available for about 80 percent, with four to eight training sessions per month on top of that.
The resilient Lincoln has a mix of national certifications in wilderness air scent and human remains detection. “Search” is his turn-on switch, prompting boundless enthusiasm and a tongue quickly hanging out as he charges through the fern-covered woodlands, once covering 26 miles on a search mission in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in the nearby Central Cascade Mountain range.
With his keen nose, Lincoln often finds training subjects up to 300 yards away, greeting them with happy face licks before returning to excitedly announce the find to 69-year-old Izant. His training has also included a few helicopter airlifts, about which he is unfazed.
There is a psychological complexity to search and rescue, Izant emphasizes. Two facets, he says, are not intuitively obvious:
- Search missions are not like an Easter egg hunt, with people fanning out and crisscrossing through a large area. Normally they are carefully organized with appropriate human, canine, and vehicular teams strategically assigned to distinct search areas.
- On a search mission, you never find something that isn’t there. If the subject is in a different search area than the one to which you are assigned or has left the area entirely, you will not find him/her no matter how good your dog is.
In other words, coming up empty-handed is not a downer.
There can be 50 or more search grids in every direction from the place where the subject was last seen, and searches often involve tens or hundreds of volunteers organized into 20 or more teams over several days. Each area is covered by an appropriate dog, human, or vehicle team who try to “clear” it and move on to their next assignment. That means there is often a 1 in 20 or less chance that an individual dog team will find the missing person.
“The biggest factor comes down to math,” says Izant. “Everyone celebrates when there is a positive outcome to a search because every person’s effort contributed to the result.”
Putting His Nose to the Test
Focused and confident Lincoln has found two missing at-risk persons, both in their late 80s and unable to find their way home. One search was completed at 2:30 a.m. when he spotted the subject in less than 15 minutes. The other had been missing overnight in a dense forest, and the dog found the party despite a steep ravine and dense underbrush.
The first, in April 2021, involved a person who had dementia and did not speak English. The individual walked away from the family’s suburban Bellevue, Washington, residence.
Normally, Izant would work Lincoln on a 20-foot lead in a residential neighborhood to keep him safe from car traffic, but it is not as effective as having him off-lead. Luckily, there was little or no traffic in the early morning hours, and Lincoln was equipped with an LED search vest.
“After about 15 minutes, he ran down behind a house and excitedly came back up on the road. He ran over to me and tugged on his indicator ball hanging on webbing from my belt and then ran back down behind the house,” Izant says. “We went down, and I restrained Lincoln so he would not frighten the subject and sent in Brian McMullen, one of my support partners, who was able to confirm the person was in the corner of the backyard.”
The second find came in June 2021 when an 87-year-old with Alzheimer’s went missing from a rural home in Duvall, Washington, the previous day. The individual’s house was at the edge of a large, forested area. Izant and Lincoln were assigned to search the perimeter and then fan out to the north and east. After less than 45 minutes, Lincoln pulled Izant and support team member Brenna O’Leary into a gully, where they found the subject disoriented, tired, and dehydrated.
Joining Search and Rescue
Lincoln was called after Izant’s grandmother’s maiden name. The name had not been used within several generations of his family, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to revive it. “One of my nephews has since named one of his daughters Grace Lincoln Izant, and someday he will have to explain to her why he named her after a dog,” Izant says with a smile.
Because Izant only has a backyard measuring only 25 by 30 feet, exercise options, other than neighborhood walks and playtime at parks, are limited. Consequently, the pair embark on two to three hikes a week, in addition to Saturday training most weeks.
“The hikes vary from two to 10 miles on a mix of flat woodland and challenging mountain trails, being certain to include rocky trails so his feet are conditioned for mountain travel,” Izant says. “Lincoln loves to swim and so playing fetch in regional lakes and rivers is part of the mix, especially in the hottest months, when it is far too easy to overheat a longhaired dog.”
What is it about the invigorating SAR commitment that attracts Izant?
“My family valued community service and I have had a number of volunteer roles in addition to my professional activities through the years,” he says. “At one point, when my career was particularly demanding, I volunteered to read for Recordings for the Blind in the evenings. Search and rescue is a wonderful way to give back while enjoying the amazing environment around us. Getting to do it with dogs feels like my reward.”
Every dog and every SAR handler is different, hence the route to success follows a wide tapestry of paths. Though Izant agrees that patience, persistence, commitment, and flexibility are all good traits for a handler to have. “Search dog training is a ‘long game,’ and handlers must keep working toward their long-range goals through challenges along the way,” he says.