More than 600,000 adults and children go missing in the United States every year. While the majority of people are safely recovered, thousands remain unaccounted for, leaving their family and friends left with nothing but grief and unresolved questions.
To broaden searches and help loved ones find answers, law enforcement often calls on outside organizations to provide a deeper level of skills and expertise needed to locate someone.
When this happens in Michigan, Casandra Ulbrich, vice chancellor for institutional development at UM-Dearborn, may be called to help in the search.
When she arrives at a scene, Ulbrich is not the one police hope can lead them to the missing person. They’re counting on her dog.
Nearly 15 years ago, Ulbrich brought home a German shepherd puppy she named Jaxon. Almost immediately, she realized Jaxon’s rambunctious energy needed an outlet.
After trying obedience and agility training, one of Ulbrich’s friends recommended search and rescue. She found Jaxon took to the training remarkably well, and she decided to dive in. Jaxon eventually became a certified human remains-detection dog.
“When we got (Jaxon), it became pretty clear that he was the type of dog that needed a lot of brain stimulation, he needed a job. … So I was learning as he was learning and we made mistakes together. It was a long journey, but he ended up being a great dog,” Ulbrich said.
After Jaxon died, Ulbrich knew she wanted to continue training German shepherds to be certified detection dogs. While several breeds can be successful search-and-rescue dogs, Ulbrich said, she finds German shepherds, with their intelligence and stamina, to be particularly adept at the job.
Ulbrich now has two German shepherds: Gryphon, who is nationally certified in human remains detection and trailing, and Alyx, who is training for his certification.
Gryphon is trained in both trailing and human-remains detection. When Gryphon was barely 7 weeks old, Ulbrich started imprinting him on human remains to sharpen his abilities to narrow in on scent. Trailing, Ulbrich explained, is the task of giving a dog a specific person’s scent to follow.
When they arrive at a scene, Gryphon is given a piece of clothing or an object that carries a strong scent of the missing person. After giving the item a quick sniff, Gryphon will attempt to identify the trail and follow it with Ulbrich holding his lead.
When working with human-remains detection, the dogs work off-leash. Her dogs are trained to recognize the scent of decaying human remains and distinguish those scents from that of animals.
Ulbrich uses teeth, bones, blood and other remains to help train her dogs. Most of her remains are donated, such as receiving teeth from local dentist offices.
“Every week we set up different scenarios for the dogs, so they’re always learning. Sometimes we bury (the remains), sometimes we put them up in a tree — all these scenarios — and the dogs continuously learn to identify and tell you when they have it,” Ulbrich said. “So, when you’re taking a dog out, if we go to a real search, I don’t have to give them that scent. They just know what they’re looking for.”
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When the dogs have found remains, they are trained to alert their handler by patting at their find, lying down or staring. Having a specific alert is a required component of the certification process for the Michigan Professional Search and Rescue Council.
Ulbrich said the majority of her cases are human-remains searches. When she and Gryphon arrive at a search, she tries to avoid learning too much about the case to avoid bias. While she legally can’t comment on any specific search she and Gryphon have participated in, she said she can confirm Gryphon has helped make discoveries in more than one case.
When asked if the severe nature of the cases is emotionally or mentally taxing, Ulbrich said, in her case, she finds it quite the opposite.
“You know that you’re helping a family find answers to something. And at the end of the day, even if what you help find is not what they were hoping to find, it’s way better than not knowing what happened to your loved one. So, in those regards, I think it’s actually quite satisfying to be able to do that,” she said.
For several years, Ulbrich conducted her training with the closest team available, several hours to the north. After talking with other handlers in southeast Michigan who also wished to have a closer option, she decided to start a team of her own.
In 2017, Ulbrich launched Wolverine State Search and Recovery, a nonprofit organization that provides search-and-rescue services to law enforcement agencies to aid in locating missing persons. The team of volunteers based in southeast Michigan includes four dogs that can be called upon for searches throughout the Midwest.
Through her organization, Ulbrich successfully called upon the state standards to recognize the difference in trailing of wilderness versus urban settings.
“When you trail in a wilderness environment, it’s way different,” she said. “When you get an urban environment, you have different distractions, you have more people, you have intersections, you have cars, and all of this requires a very different skillset.”
Ulbrich and her dogs routinely travel out of state for specialized training. Most recently, she was in Ohio taking part in a human remains burials workshop. Other times, Wolverine State Search and Recovery brings specialized training to Michigan.
For instance, Wolverine State Search and Recovery is partnering with the Wayne State University Police Department to present an urban human-remains detection seminar in Detroit on Oct. 6-8. The seminar will focus on the training techniques to help dogs effectively sniff out and identify remains in urban settings.