Mica searches for items with human scent in a pile of rubble off Chickasaw Road in Hagerman.
Record Staff Writer
Mica wanders the living room, sticking her nose into corners and sniffing. She lies down next to a cardboard box.
The box is one of a few lying around the home of Diane Whetsel and Cathy O’Dette in Roswell. Whetsel and O’Dette were in the process of moving to North Carolina at the time of Mica’s demonstration one week ago.
Whetsel tells Mica she is close but must continue looking.
The quest resumes and soon after, Mica lands on the object of her search. She lies down next to a shelving unit that holds a small open jar of teeth Whetsel collected from dentists’ offices.
Whetsel trains dogs who assist law enforcement, military and emergency personnel in searches for people, bombs and other subjects. Recently retired from work as a corrections officer at the Roswell Corrections Center, Whetsel also runs the Sage Foundation for Dogs Who Serve, a non-profit that raises funds to cover medical treatments of search dogs.
Mica, a 2-year-old border collie, is being trained by Whetsel to become a search-and-rescue dog. Specifically, Mica is learning to locate human remains.
Whetsel said human-remains dogs are less common than “live-find” dogs who look for living subjects such as lost hikers. She describes Mica’s tasks as “not-so-glorious” in comparison to searching for a 3-year-old lost in the woods, but said that Mica’s job is no less important.
“What people don’t realize is you’re bringing home closure,” said Whetsel. “Bringing closure is something I’ve realized is really very important.”
Whetsel adopted Mica from England as a 10-week-old pup. Basic obedience training (think “sit,” “lie down,” “good girl!”) started immediately. When Mica was 6 months old, she began to learn the art of human-scent detection.
The earliest phase of detection training consists of placing an item on the floor and rewarding the dog when it sniffs the object.
When the dog grows accustomed to finding the object in plain site, the trainer starts hiding the object. Trainers seek diverse locations for the search “game,” including houses, rubble, deserts forests and so on.
“It doesn’t matter where. You want them acclimated to all sorts of environments,” said Whetsel.
She said places where it is easy to hide an object and hard to find it are ideal.
For human-remains dogs, items such as human teeth, which have the scent of dead human cells, are eventually incorporated into training.
Training takes between 10 months and two years. Whetsel said Mica is ready to begin her career — all the canine needs is certification through the National Narcotic Detector Dog Association.
“She said, ‘I got this,’” Whetsel verbalizes on behalf of Mica.
According to sagefoundationfordogs.org, Whetsel has advanced certification as a K-9 unit dog handler and as a trainer of K-9 dogs and handlers. She has trained several dogs throughout her life, one of them being Sage, who died in 2012 and is the namesake of the Sage Foundation.
Sage arrived in New Mexico from England at 16 weeks of age in 1999. Like Mica, Sage was a border collie.
Sage was cross-trained as a disaster specialist, forensic K-9 dog and missing-persons search dog. She and Whetsel took their skills to aid in searches for human victims in the aftermaths of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, and, in 2007, the two were deployed to Iraq to search for missing soldiers.
Whetsel may cross-train Mica as she did Sage, so that Mica can also serve as a live-find dog.
When Sage developed cancer, Whetsel discovered that the agencies with which Sage had worked would not provide monetary aid to cover treatment. With the help of the Roswell community, Whetsel was able to raise $10,000 to cover Sage’s treatments. Leftover funds went toward starting the Sage Foundation.
Whetsel is currently training two service dogs. In addition to Mica, she has Pi. Both Mica and Pi are related to Sage, according to Whetsel. She said Sage is the pups’ great-aunt.
The longtime dog trainer said she’s been impressed with Mica’s progress through training, as she was with Sage.
“She’s just sort of steadily worked her way up through the process and she’s been really easy to train. She’s just really easy going,” she said.
When Mica isn’t training to fill Sage’s shoes, she likes to play Frisbee and catch.
Whetsel said Mica is “one of the most loving dogs that I’ve owned.”
“She’s never met another human or animal that she didn’t like.”
Mica and Pi will finish their training and certification in North Carolina, where they moved last week with Whetsel, O’Dette and O’Dette’s chihuahua, Chica. The Sage Foundation, which the couple works for together, is going with them.
“On behalf of my wife Cathy and I, we both want to extend our heartfelt thank you to the community of Roswell for being so supportive and making the Sage Foundation such a success,” Whetsel said.