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U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Julie Davis
Airman Volunteers with Search and Rescue Teams
By Master Sgt. Kat Bailey
Air Force Personnel Center Public Affairs
RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas, Aug. 8, 2006 — “Toten! Let’s go find toten, Reina! Let’s go to work!”

Reina, a pedigreed 4-year-old black and silver German shepherd puts her nose to the ground and whuffles the earth as her partner and owner, Tech. Sgt. Julie Davis, a personnelist assigned here, leads her in a grid search pattern, not for a missing person, but for traces of “toten” -- human remains.

Reina, Spanish for queen, is a highly skilled Human Remains Detection dog. According to Greater Houston Search Dogs, a volunteer non-profit search dog organization, HRD dogs can detect the presence of human remains up to hundreds of years after death, on land or in water, despite burial or attempted concealment.

Davis is not a cop; has never been in law enforcement; did not cross-train from security forces. She volunteers her off-duty time to several civilian search and rescue organizations that provide dog teams to help in the search effort when someone is reported lost or missing.

“I got interested in volunteering for SAR missions after taking fundamentals in search and rescue class while earning my master’s degree,” Davis said. “I volunteered for my first mission when I lived in Florida. I didn’t own a dog then, but that mission really accelerated my desire to help provide closure to the families of missing persons, especially if that person is believed to be dead.”

She continued working with local SAR units in her off-time and finally got her own dog after moving to San Antonio.

“A fellow handler told me I could run a dog and I kept saying, ‘I can’t! I don’t know what I’m doing!’”

Apparently she did. A military co-worker offered her dog, Reina, to see if the dog had any search and rescue capability.

“She sure did,” Davis said with a laugh. “The very first time we showed her a source (human remains), I took her back to the truck and she pulled me right back to the source. She did it several times until I finally told her to ‘find something else’ and she did! She was mine after that day. She’s a really smart dog with a natural instinct for detecting human remains.”

According to the National Association for Search and Rescue, proficient HRD teams normally require up to 18 months of intense training two to three times a week to give the dogs time to differentiate between human remains and other scents they will encounter. However, Reina and Davis completed the training and gained certification in just four months.

To better understand the challenge a dog encounters with scent, consider the range of colors a human sees and apply that range to a dog's sense of smell.

“HRD dogs face a kaleidoscope of scents when they are called into action, but despite this, they can distinguish between human and animal remains and a wide range of other odors that would normally be expected to distract them,” Davis said. “A good HRD dog is hard to find.

Reina, a Human Remains Detection dog, receives her reward, a dilapidated soccer ball, during a training session from her owner/handler, Tech. Sgt. Julie Davis, a personnelist assigned to the Air Force Personnel Center at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Kat Bailey

It’s an area with a real need and that’s why I focus on HRD rather than live finds.”

Reina has a number of prominent assists under her collar. In Pensacola, Fla., the team helped narrow the search area for a teenager, missing for more than five years, by eliminating more than 50 acres of search territory.

“It’s typical not to pinpoint the exact location of remains, especially on older cases,” Davis said, “but we can certainly narrow down the area, allowing an investigation to move on to other venues.”

The pair also took part in several searches for a local woman who disappeared on Christmas Day 1996.

“Reina and several other HRD dogs gave indicators of the location of human remains,” said Davis.

No body was recovered, but there was possible evidence, which is being investigated.

If Reina locates a source during training, she is rewarded with a soccer ball, her favorite toy. It’s an even bigger treat if she finds a source during a mission.

“Steak,” Davis declared. “I get a big, ol’ steak and so does Reina. Mine’s cooked, of course.”

She enjoys conducting SAR training and missions whenever possible, but Davis said she really wants to do it full-time after she retires from the Air Force.

“I’m also thinking about starting up a kennel and training HRD dogs,” she said. “I don’t know. Maybe I got lucky with my queen, but I think I have a knack for it.”
Last Updated:
08/08/2006, Eastern Daylight Time
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