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North Hills Monthly

Specially Trained Dogs Saving Lives, Providing Comfort to Those in Need

Jan 01, 2018 02:06PM ● By Vanessa Orr

Dr. John Osheka's dog, Sunny

While dogs have earned the reputation of being man’s best friend, not all of them spend their lives just being lovable couch potatoes. In addition to providing affection and companionship to their owners, search and rescue dogs save lives by finding people who are hurt or missing, and therapy dogs brighten spirits and provide comfort to hospital or hospice patients, as well as children testifying in court. Researchers are even working to determine if dogs can be trained to smell for early signs of cancer.

Search & Rescue

Dr. John Osheka and his dog, Sunny, both work for the White Oak Search & Rescue group, and recently began working with the Butler County Sheriff’s Department. 

“Sunny is the second dog I’ve trained in search and rescue; I trained my first dog, Sundance, to do it about nine years ago,” said Osheka, who  also teaches a scent detection course at Lucky Paws Pet Resort. “I originally got very involved with White Oak Search & Rescue, and when I moved to this area, I began looking for a similar program here.”

While a lot of people think that if a dog can smell, it can track, it actually takes about 1-1/2 years to certify a search and rescue dog, according to Osheka. “First you train the dog to come back and forth to you, then to find a person a short distance away. You give them rewards, which depend on if they are food or toy oriented, and then you keep increasing the distance.”

Osheka says that certain breeds are more adaptable to search and rescue, including German shepherds, Belgian Malinois, golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers. “Dogs that tend to be herders or hunters by nature are better,” he said, adding that coonhounds and bloodhounds also do well. “There are also a number of rescue dogs that have come out of shelters that have adapted very well.”

Osheka and Sunny usually train one to two hours a day, one to two times a week. “We’ll spend a Sunday morning in the woods with someone hiding and the dog trying to find them,” he said. “We recently trained at Kennywood, which opens its facility to us once a year. It’s good to train in different venues, because you never know what type of situation you’ll be called into.”

Jacqueline Harris became interested in search and rescue about a decade ago when a young boy went missing in Hookstown. While she couldn’t get involved at the time, after she got a border collie puppy named Oakley, she began working toward certification.

“I joined Allegheny Mountain Rescue Group (AMRG), though I’d never trained a dog for search and rescue before,” she said. “Their canine team was awesome in helping with training.” AMRG has eight K9 handlers and 10 dogs, and 25 other members who participate in missing person searches, high angle rescues and cave rescues.

“Oakley is an air scent dog, and is deployed when someone is missing in the wilderness,” said Harris. “Air scent dogs work off of the skin rafts that come off of every person.  She is nondiscriminatory, meaning that she is not searching for a specific person; she finds human scents.”

An air scent dog is different than a trailing dog, which smells an item owned by the missing person and follows their trail. “Air scent dogs are used for bigger areas, to search for people who have been missing for a longer time, or for when there is no specific trail because you don’t know where the person went missing,” said Harris. 

Oakley was certified in November, and has not yet been deployed on a search. “We’ve been training for two years and I’d like to get her on a real search,” said Harris. “I’d rather people not be injured or missing, but we will be prepared when they are.” 

In addition to dog training, handlers must go undergo training as well. “Handlers go through a FEMA course, first aid, CPR, compass reading, orienteering and more,” said Osheka. “You need to know more than dog handling; you need to be able to survive in the woods.”

Providing Comfort to Kids and Seniors

Osheka and Sunny also participate in a witness/victim therapy program, helping support children who are testifying or need to be deposed for a court case. “Kids really respond to the fact that the dog is there for support, and Sunny is good at picking up on their emotions,” said Osheka. “It’s been a great experience.”

Oakley also works as a therapy dog, visiting patients in Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC each week, as well as stopping in to cheer up nursing home and hospice patients. “She really has the temperament for a therapy dog—she’s comfortable coming into contact with a bunch of different people of all ages and illnesses,” said Harris, who also runs a nonprofit organization for children with cancer and heart disease.

“We go to Children’s Hospital every Thursday with a list of children to visit, and kids invite her up on the bed with them, pet her and take pictures,” said Harris. “It’s not just for the kids, either—I’ve heard parents say that they feel that it’s lowered their blood pressure, because they’re stressed, too. And the nurses are all over Oakley.

“Seeing that furry little face helps them forget what they’re going through,” she added. “And it’s good for people in nursing homes to get a break from their daily routine.” Oakley also visits CCAC students during finals week to help relieve stress.

Stephanie Napolitano knows firsthand how important such visits can be. “I was so thrilled when Jackie and Oakley came to visit my daughter Miranda in Children’s Hospital,” she said of the dog’s visit through the hospital’s PetFriend program. “It was great to see the instant smile that came across Miranda’s face when Oakley sat on her bed and allowed her to pet her. After the visit, we followed Oakley on Facebook and Instagram; we love seeing updates on her other adventures.”

Can Dogs Detect Cancer?

Osheka and Sunny are currently involved in a research study at the University of Pittsburgh to determine if the dog can detect the scent of cancer. Dr. Osheka is also training another golden retriever, Feather, who is owned by Sheryle Long.  

“Dogs’ olfactory nerves are 10,000 times stronger than those in humans, and research is being done to determine how a dog’s nose breaks down scents,” said Osheka. “We’re working with the university to determine if Sunny and two other dogs can detect cancer in urine.”

The dogs are run through a series of blind tests, smelling cotton swabs that are placed into sealed boxes with air holes. When the dogs react, they are rewarded.

“The university does the analysis, so we don’t know if the swabs are positive or negative, or how many correct or incorrect responses the dogs give,” said Osheka, adding that the test will also determine in how small a molecule the dogs can detect the disease.  “Pancreatic cancer is hard to detect, so if this works out, it will be a great thing for the medical profession.”

With both Sunny and Oakley on the job, it’s no surprise that they’re developing legions of fans. Oakley has her own Facebook page at Oakley the therapy and search dog, and is also on Instagram at Oakleysar. 

“I was a school superintendent for years before I retired and started training dogs nine years ago,” laughed Osheka. “But now, that 35-year career doesn’t  matter. I’m just known as the dog person.”