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Walking into a fenced in yard while three large German Shepherds are roaming can be frightening.
“None of my dogs are bite dogs,’ said Melissa Newman of Corinth, the owner of the canines. “One or two of them will bite if I tell them to, but it’s because I told them to.”
In fact, most the time the dogs, along with a black labrador, chase the shadows of bugs to pass the day.
They may even eat an occasional walnut that falls from a tree.
But when 10-year-old Gunner, 4-year-old Boone, 3-year-old Lea and 3-year-old black labrador Chloe are called on to go to work it is serious business.
Newman has trained the German Shepherds to become North American Police Work Dog Association (NAPWDA) certified trailing and cadaver dogs.
“Gunner was my first dog. He’s the old man,” Newman said. “Boone’s actually the go-to man now since he’s in the prime of his life.”
“The dogs are a riot,” she said. “I love working with them. They’re amazing because they do so much thinking on their own.”
The labrador is a FEMA disaster dog who helps find people in collapsed buildings.
Newman, who teaches in the department of animal science at the University of Kentucky, has been doing searches for 10 years.
For four years, she has assisted with the Grant County Sheriff’s Department, along with the Grant County Rescue Squad.
Sheriff Chuck Dills swore Newman in as a special deputy to the department.
She recently won the Louise Maloney member award from NAPWDA, which consists of more than 3,000 K-9 teams.
The award is named after the wife of Pat Maloney, a retired police officer and K-9 master trainer.
“I was really surprised,” Newman said. “I think they had like 30 people nominated. Somehow, I got picked. I don’t think I’m deserving in anyway, but it was awesome.”
While she said she has wanted to do searches since she was a child, Newman added that seeing rescue dogs heroically search for survivors after the Sept. 11 tragedy pushed her to pursue it further.
She then got a German Shepherd puppy and attended training classes from the Kentucky Search Dog Association.
Now, Newman is the state coordinator for NAPWDA and will help coordinate a NAPWDA workshop in Grant County from Dec. 1 to Dec. 3.
She also is the FEMA canine coordinator for Ohio Task Force One based in Dayton, where she takes the dogs for training once a month.
“You have to expose them to everything, things you can’t even believe like slick floors and fire engines and trains,” Newman said. “The dog has to be able to handle all of that. The reality though is the hardest part is the handler. You may get a dog solid in a year, but unless the handler has some background, it’s probably two years training for the handler.”
While she obviously prefers to find survivors during her searches, Newman said it is also important to provide closure to families who want to bury a loved one.
“We had one that was someone with Alzheimer’s,” she said. “I really and truly think if we wouldn’t have found her she would have passed. She had fallen in a hole and she was cold and wet. But, a lot of them are people who are just lost and you’re lucky enough to be in the right spot to find them.”
Although searches rarely happen at a convenient time, Newman said it is worth all of the hard work and dedication.
“They’ll come on your child’s first birthday, on Christmas morning,” she said. “But, it’s amazing. This is the first thing that I want to excel at, not for me, but for the victim or the family of the victim. I don’t think I’ve ever found anything as motivating as the thought that there is somebody out there that can only come home if we find them.”