By A Nose: K-9 Derby

Indiana Conservation Officer Tim Kaiser leaned over and whispered to his K-9 partner, Derby, before releasing him on an area search drill to find a shotgun, knife and shell casing Kaiser had hidden in a field March 8. In six minutes, Derby found all three items with play time in between as a reward for finding each item. “You can’t train that,” Kaiser said about Derby’s quick and eager tracking ability. Derby completed his K-9 training last May and has helped locate several missing persons.

Story by Bill Powell
Photos by Tegan Johnston

K-9 Derby, a local search-and-rescue ace partnered with Indiana Conservation Officer Tim Kaiser, was less than 10 miles away when an 86-year-old woman with early-stage Alzheimer’s went missing late Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 22, north of Chrisney.

The only problem was Derby and Kaiser were off duty and the latter was out for a run as the sun sank low in the sky.

Luckily, Kaiser had his cellphone with him and took the call from the Spencer County Sheriff’s Department telling him a woman had gotten lost while looking for her dog.

During a tracking exercise, Derby picked up the scent of two fishermen at the Blue Grass Fish and Wildlife Area while Kaiser followed behind. Kaiser said he likes to take Derby to places where he can simulate real-life tracking experiences.

Kaiser jogged up his driveway, grabbed his partner and off they went.

“Her dog took off and she took off after her dog,” Kaiser says. It happened fast and the woman’s family lost sight of her, he adds.

Family members who Kaiser says were worried sick had searched a nearby woodline by the time he and Derby arrived. The conservation officer asked where was the last place anyone had had eyes on the lost woman — and he asked for her pillow case.

After a sniff of that personal scent article, Derby was off.

“From there, it was really fast,” the 27-year-old Kaiser says. “Right off the bat, we hit her track.”

Derby went the opposite direction from the strip of woods where everyone else had been looking, leading searchers about a half mile away in a field.

The missing woman had fallen, had a hard time getting up and was down where no one could see her at that moment, according to Kaiser.

“It was right at dark,” Kaiser says. “Derby saw her first. By the time I knew what was going on, she was standing up.”

After Kaiser and Derby covered the last 150 yards to reach her, they learned the woman was a little confused but otherwise fine.

Derby wears a badge almost identical to Kaiser’s, but instead of an employee number, Derby’s collar reads “K9-26.” Each service dog has a unique number and Derby is the 26th K-9 within his department.

After some initial embarrassment, the woman kneeled down, played with Derby and gave him a kiss on the nose.

“She was very happy to see us, that’s for sure,” Kaiser says. “She was one of the sweetest ladies I ever met. She reminded me of my grandma, actually.”

The conservation officer gave the keys to his truck to a sheriff’s deputy and had him drive the vehicle back to their location to give the woman a ride home.

The lost woman’s pet dog, a beagle mix, had already returned home on its own by the time Kaiser and Derby had arrived on scene.

A Facebook post about Derby’s latest success by Indiana DNR Law District 7 was liked more than 1,400 times and garnered 425 shares and 61 comments. Of the latter, Kaiser got the occasional nod of thanks but Derby was the one most lauded as being a hero.

And that’s OK with his partner.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Kaiser says. “He does all the hard work. I’m just the guy at the end of the lead who interprets what he does.”

When they enter classrooms for hunter education classes, the partners are used to children screaming, “Derby is here!”

Derby and Kaiser have worked together since last March.

The duo played after giving a demonstration to Boonville Middle School. “Nobody knows who I am, but they all remember Derby,” Kaiser said.

Kaiser first laid eyes on the black Labrador retriever puppy at the Posey County Pound Puppies facility where he had been brought as a stray and never claimed.

“He was about 4 months old,” Kaiser says.

Derby’s demeanor, mannerisms and willingness to work convinced his handler to enroll him in the Indiana Conservation Officer K-9 Resource Protection Program. The program’s training focuses on wildlife and ginseng detection, area searches for evidence recovery and man tracking.

“He loves to find guns and shell casings,” Kaiser says. “He absolutely loves it. He’s really good at it.”

If a person has touched it, Derby will be able to find it. That includes Kaiser’s handcuffs, keys and cellphone.

“He’s helped me find some of my own stuff I’ve lost,” Kaiser says with a chuckle.

Derby, who now tops the scales at more than 100 pounds, is a special dog, Kaiser insists.

Derby has a crate in the back of Kaiser’s SUV that the K-9 usually rests in, but from time to time, Derby will come up and check on his partner or let him know that he’s hot, Kaiser said. Kaiser has learned to wear layers because it can get cold riding around in the winter with the windows down when Derby gets heated, especially after a search.

“He’s a wild, crazy, 2-year-old Lab at home,” he says. “When we go to work, it’s all business. He’s serious about it. I mean there is a night-and-day difference when we’re working and when we’re not.”

Tracking people is the most difficult task a K-9 tackles and it is the skill Kaiser and Derby train the hardest to master. Real-world searches and rescues are also difficult because one must hope for the best and prepare for the worst, according to Kaiser.

Kaiser doesn’t like those type of calls.

“More often than not, they don’t end well,” he says.

But, with Derby in the mix, the last several lost-person calls have turned out fantastic, Kaiser says. Those lost have been found alive. They have either been located in good shape or found in time to make a full recovery after treatment.

“We’ve had some that were looking really bad and they turned out good,” Kaiser says.

In December, Derby and Kaiser were dispatched to the Harrison-Crawford State Forest to look for a missing 59-year-old Corydon man. That victim’s worried relatives and co-workers said he was believed to have gone to the forest where he had hiked and hunted in the past.

Sure enough, the man’s vehicle was located in a parking area by an old forest road.

“He had been out walking and had ended up falling down a really steep ravine,” Kaiser says. “Where he was at, we never would have found him (in time). Not at night. The whole search was in the dark.

“The underbrush was so thick you couldn’t see more than 10 or 12 feet.”

The first track Derby hit was followed for a mile to a deer hunter in the Harrison-Crawford forest. They had tracked the wrong person.

Part of Derby’s training is equipment association. Derby has three main pieces of equipment: a slip collar, a snap collar and a harness. When Derby sees which piece of equipment Officer Kaiser is going to use, he immediately knows which task he will need to perform.

They backtracked to the parking area. Derby was off his lead. He did a free-air sniff and then tracked straight to the unconscious man in the ravine in less than seven minutes.

“He had a big rock on his back,” Kaiser said of the victim, who was found blue on the incline. His airway was constricted, a small tree was supporting his weight and he was severely hypothermic.

“He was in bad shape,” Kaiser says. “Just by the way he was lying there, I never would have dreamed he was still alive.”

After repositioning the victim and clearing his airway, officers and rescue personnel treated him for hypothermia and carried him out of the woods in a Stokes basket. The man was immediately airlifted for treatment at University of Louisville Hospital.

“As far as I know, he made a full recovery,” Kaiser says. “He was released from the hospital a few days later.”

The incident near Chrisney was just the latest incidence of Derby doing what he does — quickly and successfully.

“This was a best-case scenario,” Kaiser said.

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