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Oct. 6, 2022

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These 3 dogs from Washington are heroes

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You could understand why Jon Izant, driving back to his home on Queen Anne Hill, shed a couple of tears.

With him was Lincoln, a 5-year-old flat-coated retriever, dogs named for their often-black, flat-lying coat and described by the American Kennel Club as “among the happiest of all breeds.”

A little before 2 in the afternoon of June 28, Lincoln found Gil Kneram, 87, in a gully amid thick undergrowth in Duvall.

Kneram had spent the night there after taking a walk and getting lost a quarter-mile from his home. He was found in good condition, but his family had obviously been worried.

Says Izant about why he got emotional, “My little puppy had applied hundreds and hundreds of hours of training hours to save a life.”

It’s been said that all dogs are good dogs; the three profiled in this story do have something extra about them.

They are the three Washington state dogs trying to make the final cut, out of 400 dogs nominated nationwide. They’ve made it past the first round of online voting in which anyone can vote. They are now in the second round, which ends July 22, of the 2022 American Humane Hero Dog Awards. A final vote ends Sept. 13.

Many of you dog owners likely believe yours has hero qualities — maybe not as a search dog, but who’s there to keep you company on the sofa after a rotten day at work? Who’s there to look adoringly at you, no ifs or buts?

But a dog like Lincoln? Says Ethel Kneram, 82, whose husband had gotten lost, “I’ll tell you right now that I’m a cat person. But I thought Lincoln was just wonderful, very gentle and friendly.”

Now, she says, she won’t allow Gil, a retired plant manager, out of the house unless he’s wearing an electronic tracking device.

“He has dementia, but we can’t lock him up. He loves to walk in the woods, two or three times a day. Nothing like this had happened before,” she says.

Dogs have an astounding sense of smell: 10,000 to 100,000 times more powerful than that of humans, according to a 2003 study by the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University.

Lincoln has raced through woods covering as many as 26 miles a day, says Izant. The dog has an “airscent” certification, meaning he doesn’t need to smell someone’s clothing to find them, such as with the Duvall man. By training, they’re looking for a generalized human scent.

He is one of nearly 30 canines with King County Search Dogs. The dogs, and the handlers, are ready day or night. Izant has a special iPhone ringtone (“Circuit”) for search calls.

For one such call, at 2:15 a.m. on May 1, 2021, Lincoln and Izant ended up at a Bellevue housing development. That time, another 87-year-old, a woman with Alzheimer’s, had been missing. In 15 minutes Lincoln found her on a hillside near her home.

“All worthwhile when watching a family reunited,’ says Izant.

Out in Moses Lake, a dog named Sherman Gepherd (that’s German shepherd with the start of each name switched) didn’t get the two-year training of a search dog.

For him it was puppy and adult classes at Petco and whatever tips Annette Hanks, 48, picked up online.

It turned out just fine. Sherman has been her constant companion since she got him as a six-month-old, about 2 1/2 years after the car accident she was in at around 4 p.m. on Aug. 19, 2013.

She still panics sometimes in traffic when she sees a car pulling up behind her maybe a little fast.

“If I get very anxious, I feel him lick my elbow, telling me he’s right here. It’s hard to explain. I talk to him. He’s saved me. He’s my hero,” she says.

It was a 1999 black Cadillac that slammed into the rear of the 2010 Town and Country minivan in which Hanks was a passenger; her husband Wyatt Hanks was driving, and in the rear, strapped in a baby car seat, was their toddler granddaughter, now 10.

On a Moses Lake street, Wyatt had stopped for blinking lights at a pedestrian crossing, as did the car next to them.

In the side mirror, however, Annette saw something ominous. The Cadillac kept getting closer and closer. In a memoir she wrote, she remembers about the impact, “The sounds, smells, and sights are things I’ll never forget.”

The couple, who suffered neck and back strains and some internal bruising, immediately turned to check on their granddaughter.

“She looked dead. She had a green tint to her,” remembers Annette.

The little girl was flown to Harborview Medical Center for possible bleeding in the brain.

The child recovered, but Annette says she’s always felt guilt. “My seat broke and my body went backwards, and I might have hit her head,” she says.

The Washington State Patrol investigation says the driver “had an obvious strong odor of intoxicants coming from his person and his face was flushed.”

Court records show he pleaded guilty to “vehicular assault — disregard safety” and reckless driving. He was ordered to pay some $24,000 in restitution to the Hankses and was sentenced to 90 days in jail, including time served. Annette says the couple has seen little of the restitution money, which was to cover their health-insurance deductible.

Annette has seen a counselor and been on antidepressants, she says. The panic attacks have lessened, but they’re always in the background.

When Annette heard about the hero awards, she knew she had to nominate Sherman.

“His mind is always working, figuring out how to make my life wonderful. I can’t put into words just how loving he is. I have no doubt that he would give his life for me,” she wrote in her nomination.

One more story about a search dog in the semifinals.

It’s about Keb, a Labrador retriever, who has been on over 100 search missions. The stories she could tell, especially about her work.

Keb specializes in “human remains detection.”

Her owner is Suzanne Elshult of Edmonds, who talks about families living in uncertainty for years and perhaps decades not knowing what happened to someone gone missing. “It is one of the worst things imaginable,” she says.

Yes, the dogs and their owners develop strong bonds. Originally from Sweden, Elshult named Keb after Kebnekaise, the highest mountain in Sweden. Her admiration for the dog has meant co-authoring with her search partner, Guy Mansfield, a book, out in October, focused on Keb: “A Dog’s Devotion.”

A chapter is devoted to the March 22, 2014 Oso landslide in Snohomish County, in which 43 died. Keb found the remains of three victims: “ . . . I turn around and see her in a crouched, almost stalking position, circling slowly and cautiously in a sludge-covered area ten feet away . . . pressing her nose into the ground, and taking swipes at the dirt.”

Elshult tells of a firefighter then taking out his water bottle “and with a gentleness I will always remember, starts washing mud off a face that is staring at us with the eyes of the dead.”

There is training, and lots of it, in a dog learning how to discern human from animal remains.

Keb has been to the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University, which conducts research on the human decomposition process, and has gotten to smell, and hopefully remember the smell of, over 500 volatile organic compounds. Sometimes, with approval, Keb has trained in old cemeteries. Extracted teeth provided by dentists are good samples.

At age 12, Keb is nearing the end of her career as a search dog. But her work will be memorialized in the book, which covers a number of her searches — such as the case of remains found in the woods west of Highway 2 near Gold Bar.

According to a Dec. 8, 2015 Seattle Times story, a logger found a skull, but nothing else.

It was Keb who found a mandible with teeth. That discovery proved critical in identifying the remains of Sandy L. Rideout, 41, of Ferndale in Whatcom County, who had disappeared in 2006.

“Dental records provide the Snohomish County medical examiner with an identification. The mandible Keb found leads to a major breakthrough in the case,” writes Guy Mansfield in the book.

A search of news stories doesn’t show any conclusion to the investigation.

So far there have been 400,000 online hero-dog votes in seven categories, ranging from therapy dogs to search dogs. The winners are chosen by a combination of votes and judges’ decisions.

No matter the results, Keb has done her part. Good dog.

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