It was truly a “dog day” of August a few weeks back when Minimum Security C.O. Lieutenant Michael Reis and his rescue dog, Ashley, met up with State Trooper Scot Carlsten in the woods of West Greenwich to take the wildnerness exam they needed to pass in order to be re-certified for another two years as an Ocean State Search and Rescue (OSSAR) team. An eight-year-old Golden Retriever who began her OSSAR training at eight weeks, Ashley had up to two hours to find a “subject,” fellow OSSAR volunteer Alicia Sequin, hidden in 40 acres of woods. The owner of Two Paws Up dog grooming salon in Cranston, Alicia and her dog, X, had just passed their re-certification that morning.
In preparation for the test, Lt. Reis checked in with OSSAR’s Joe Neto, a former Correctional Officer who retired after a serious assault by an inmate left him disabled. Neto and Reis were instrumental in the founding of OSSAR nine years ago. Operating out of a command center vehicle donated by the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers (RIBCO) and using donated computer equipment, Officer Neto hands Lt. Reis a topographical map and a set of numbers, which he then plots to determine the coordinates of the 40-acre sector where Ashley is to search during her allotted two hours. Though searchers, who are also equipped with GPS, don’t call in to the command center on their radios (donated by the Pawtucket Police Department) during a test, they would during an actual search.
Reis and Neto talk about the bond formed between a rescue dog and his or her human partner. There is a photo on the command center wall of Blizzard, a white German Shepherd who was Officer Neto’s long-time canine partner and who passed away after a brief illness last year. Beside it is a photo of Cyndy, Lt. Reis’ longtime canine partner, who ironically died four days later. “They truly are your partners,” notes Lt. Reis. “You become very attached.” Cyndy had two finds with the team during her tenure, including a Richmond mother and her three children who become disoriented and got lost in the deep woods.
The OSSAR team participates in anywhere from zero to eight searches per year depending on need. The team’s first ever find was in August of 2002 when Stella Penza, a 78-year-old Hopkinton woman got stuck in the briars near her daughter’s home. Penza had been house sitting for her daughter when the dog got loose, and she wandered after it and got lost about a half mile from the house. The Holocaust survivor spent the night in the woods, unable to move the brambles were so thick. When Cyndy found her, Lt. Reis recalls, the first thing she asked for was a Budweiser.
Though she is likely nearing the end of her rescue career, Ashley, who is also certified as a FEMA disaster search dog, showed no signs of her age that hot August morning. Carefully watching her cues and letting her do the thinking, Lt. Reis knows that part of their “grade” is related to how he communicates with Ashley.
Lt. Reis has been involved in other volunteer activities during his 26 + year RIDOC career including serving as Law Enforcement Torch Run Director for Special Olympics Rhode Island and producing a 5K RIBCO Road Race for three years to benefit Hasbro Children’s Hospital. He enjoys volunteering his time with OSSAR for many reasons. He loves spending time with the dogs and the great group of dedicated volunteers, he is energized by the hope of finding a lost family member, but mostly, he says, it’s the right thing to do. He “If one of my family members were missing,” he shares, “I would want a team such as ours to come out and help no matter the time of day or the temperature outside. I have been out on searches in blazing sun and driving rain and snow, and each time I go out I get butterflies in my stomach. I strive to be the best that I can be and I don’t think I could face myself if I missed the subject.”
To the relief of the humans involved in the search on that hot August morning, Ashley let out small but distinctive yelp just 20 minutes into the search alerting Lt. Reis know that she had found her subject. Sure enough, Lt. Reis and Trooper Carlsten followed her to Alicia, seated by a tree deep in the woods. Hot, tired, and eager to roll in the dirt and then cool off in the stream on the walk back to the vehicle, Ashley had proven that she is fit to continue searching and rescuing for at least another two years.