Christmas was two days away and Chandler Ray couldn’t wait to get home.
Heavy rain didn’t stop the 23-year-old from leaving his girlfriend’s home in Raleigh, North Carolina, to make the two-hour drive to see his family.
He had barely started his journey when his vehicle hydroplaned on the wet road, flipped over and hit a tree. The accident totaled his car and seriously injured Ray. When paramedics airlifted him to the hospital, they had no idea a passenger was left behind.
Ray’s beloved Newfoundland, Rufus, had been riding in his favorite spot in the back seat and disappeared from the scene of the accident.
“I ran to Raleigh and frantically searched for Rufus knowing I had to go to WakeMed to be with my son,” says his mother, Kathy Ray, of Washington, North Carolina.
It seemed impossible that there was no sign of a 150 pound black shaggy dog.
Ray suffered a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the waist down. When he regained consciousness, it wasn’t his condition that worried her.
“My son came to and found out that we hadn’t found Rufus, and it wasn’t losing his legs that made him say he didn’t want to live…it was losing Rufus,” says Ray’s mother.
But then a small glimmer of hope: Someone mentioned seeing a social media post about a Raleigh woman whose dog could find missing pets.
Looking for Rufus
On Christmas Eve, Balynda Brown was driving to visit her mother for the holidays when her phone rang. “I turned the car around. I had to go help,” she says.
Just a month earlier, she and her Rat Terrier, Bravo, completed their studies at the Missing Animal Response Network (MARN), a program to train dogs to track down missing pets. Hunting down Rufus would be her first real case.
“When I got to the crash site, I had no idea how anyone could have survived this. It looked like a plane crash,” says Brown. “Everywhere you looked there were clothes, gifts, wrapping paper, even on the trees. I thought we were looking for a dead dog.
As soon as Bravo smelled the wrecked vehicle, he went into work mode.
“Bravo went straight to the freeway and started tracking it, then crossed eight lanes of traffic to cross the freeway, and that’s where we finally saw Rufus for the first time,” says Brown. “Dogs lost in unknown places almost always return to the last place they saw their owner, and Rufus was trying to get back to the accident site.” Concentrating on the area indicated by Bravo, Brown, Ray’s girlfriend, Elizabeth Speidel, and a team of friends and volunteers searched day and night and caught glimpses of the Newfie.
Brown trained them in calming signals because lost dogs are often so traumatized that they will stay away even from familiar people. Cues may include singing to his pet and sitting on the floor while he pretends to eat treats.
“At the end, Elizabeth said she could hear Rufus surrounding her, then her circle got smaller, and then bam! He lunged at her,” says Brown.
Rufus was taken to an emergency veterinary office where he was found unharmed apart from a few bruises, and was reunited with Ray at the hospital.
The Rufus case was Bravo’s first job in late 2019. Since then, Brown and his terrier have helped more than 300 pets return home.
But Bravo didn’t start life as a great search dog candidate.
Brown, who has been showing dogs since she was 6 years old, raised her litter and liked the puppies so much that she kept two: Bravo and his brother, Buddha.
He hoped to win the Bravo conformation championship and compete in dock diving and other sports.
But Brown reassessed his future after experiencing a change in his personality as a young adult.
The littermates were best friends until they were 3 years old and they started having fights. Short skirmishes escalated until the two got into serious fights, usually with Bravo on the losing end.
Bravo became more fearful and reactive not only with the dogs in his house, but with all dogs and even with people, Brown recalls.
“I started walking Bravo by myself, but when he saw a person or dog coming from another direction, even from a distance, he would bark like crazy. He even bit me. Nobody was home when that happened,” he says.
“I was scared and cried a lot, trying to figure out what to do with it. I thought I might have to put him down. I was unable to locate him as I could not trust him with dogs, adults or children.”
Looking for a job
Brown did not want to give up on Bravo and fought for a solution.
“Our relationship hit a snag and we needed something to fix it,” she says. “I didn’t trust him. I’ve always heard that dogs need a job, and I thought maybe that’s what Bravo needed.”
She saw a news story about a couple who hired a pet detective to find their missing Labrador retriever.
“I thought, ‘What is that?’ It was intriguing to me. I started researching and discovered the Missing Animal Response Network.”
Former police officer Kat Albrecht-Thiessen created MARN 25 years ago after her Bloodhound, which was following her man, came out of her fenced-in yard and disappeared. She asked a friend for help with a Golden Retriever, trained to track people.
“We knew her dog understood smelling the pillowcase, finding the missing person, but we didn’t know if she would understand, smelling the stinky Bloodhound blanket and finding the stinky dog. But she did! The Golden located my Bloodhound within 20 minutes and my life changed forever. Since then, I have trained hundreds of people and many search dogs to find lost pets.”
Brown enrolled Bravo in a 10-week MARN course. She just wanted to help Bravo; she had no intention of tracking pets in the future. When the app asked her if she liked other dogs and people, she lied: “Yes.”
Students submit their assignments via video for instructors to review.
Training involves teaching a dog to follow a scent trail. An item of scent can be a dog’s brush, bed or leash, anything that smells like the missing pet. Students then enlist the help of friends hiding their pets for practice.
“From the first class, I noticed a difference in Bravo. He seemed to stop looking for trouble and no longer got into fights at home. When he was working on a trail, he seemed oblivious to everything around him and could easily weave past dogs and people.”
The instructors also noticed something: Bravo had a real talent for tracking. Brown received high marks on his assignment with the exception of one critical requirement: search dogs must love other dogs and be excited to meet and meet them.
“At the end of a hide, I would just stop 15 feet from the dog and throw a ball the other way as a reward. Finally, at the end of the last class, I had to tell them that I was not going to continue. I started crying and told them I had lied.”
Instead of expelling her, the instructors encouraged Brown to stay in the program. They saw enormous potential in the team.
“We don’t normally accept reactive dogs into the program, but luckily Bravo was an exception. He showed us that some reactive dogs can outgrow their reactivity through continuous training and exposure to people and other dogs,” says Albrecht-Thiessen. “I think her excellence in this job was primarily a result of Balynda’s dedication to training him and learning everything she could learn about scent discrimination tracking, lost pet recovery work and how to read your dog. ”.
Full time pet detectives
After another year of training, Bravo and Brown began their careers with the case of the missing Newfoundland. With just social media posts and word of mouth, they soon had so many cases that Brown quit her full-time job as a gym coach and opened Bravo K911.
They usually work every day of the week. His success stories have included finding cats and other animals, as well as dogs.
While Bravo’s incredible nose is a big part of the team’s success, Brown plays a key role in helping homeowners develop a plan of action, including designing and putting up signs, monitoring neighborhoods, installing feeding stations and cameras. , and more.
“This gave Bravo and I a fresh start, and this work saved Bravo’s life and, in turn, has saved many lives,” says Brown.