SEARCHERS scouring dense bush in central Victoria for a missing autistic boy last week were supported by rescue dog Obi.
The black Labrador – owned and trained by Andrew and Julie Cowan, of Somerville-based Search and Rescue Dogs Australia – used his exceptional air scenting skills to home-in on the area where Will Callaghan was found.
His owners say Obi’s barking may have alerted human rescuer Ben Gibbs, who was close by, to push through “horrendous” vegetation and up the bank where he says he found the 14-year-old looking “angelic”.
Will, who loves dogs, was standing up “trying to look for the sound of the dog barking”, said Ms Cowan, who founded the volunteer not-for-profit service with her husband in 1994.
Their dogs find missing people by air scenting, not tracking. Searching off-lead over large distances they scan an area to pick up the scent of human breath, then narrow in on the source. Ms Cowan said they were deployed by police to Mt Disappointment on Tuesday afternoon 9 June and were in the area Will was found at first light Wednesday.
Will’s discarded shoes had been discovered the day before “so we knew he was not far away”, Ms Cowan said.
After being given a “good sniff” of the shoes Obi rushed towards the creek and was struggling through tangled undergrowth towards Will when Mr Gibbs spotted the boy, who was in good condition after two freezing nights out.
The sound of Obi’s “big bark” may have done the trick, as the searchers had been told that Will might not respond to human voices and, indeed, might even try to hide if he heard people calling his name.
Trained to detect human breath and bacteria, Ms Cowan said search and rescue dogs could distinguish 1000 different scents up to 300 metres away.
“Once Obi knows which scent he is looking for he eliminates all the others one by one until he finds it,” she said.
Search and Rescue Dogs Australia dog teams were deployed following the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires and were the first dog teams in Australia to receive the National Emergency Medal, Ms Cowan said.
They twice searched for missing people at Mount Buffalo last year and also for a missing man at Marysville.
“One search and rescue dog is worth 40 searchers,” Ms Cowan said. “Often they don’t get enough kudos.”