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‘Red’ alert: Bloodhound helps firefighters on search-and-rescue missions

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Updated: September 27, 2013 6:33AM

When a 10-year-old New Lenox girl with autism was reported missing recently, Red quickly found her in a hiding spot three blocks from her family’s home.

All he needed was a whiff of the T-shirt she had slept in the night before. He put his wrinkled face to the ground and followed her scent, leading rescuers to a brushy area.

Red, a New Lenox firehouse’s bloodhound, was just doing what he does best.

“He certainly makes search-and-rescue missions a lot easier,” said firefighter Greg Gaj, one of Red’s handlers with the New Lenox Fire Protection District.

Red was rescued from a shelter by firefighters .

He is the only search-and-rescue hound in Illinois who lives at a fire station, and maybe one of a few in the country, Fire Chief Jon Mead said.

Most are kept by police departments, including the Cook County sheriff’s office, Gaj said.

“When they said they wanted a dog, I told them it has to do something, not just lay around,” Mead said. Red had to meet all three shifts of firefighters on duty at the station before they could adopt him.

“He was rescued and he became a rescuer,” the chief said. “One dog can do the work of 100 people.”

When firefighters found this 1-year-old bloodhound, who already was named Red, it seemed the perfect match. He was real skinny when he first came to the firehouse, but now he is a proud, healthy, laidback dog who loves to hang out on the picnic tables in the firehouse parking lot. And he occasionally finishes their food if they forget to cage him before leaving on a call.

Gaj and fellow firefighter/paramedic Frank Hasik — both dog lovers — volunteered to be Red’s handlers. A third firefighter, Ryan Mallary, is in training, so one of the handlers will be available 24 hours a day.

“It seemed like a cool thing to do,” Hasik said.

Red and his handlers are certified by the National Police Bloodhound Association and are to travel to New York every May for a 40-hour certification course. Red also trains every other week with other bloodhounds from neighboring police departments, and for about an hour a day at the fire station.

Red is laidback until they tell him it’s time to go to work; then he gets fired up.

“When his harness is put on him, he knows it’s time,” Gaj said. “He’s a slow-moving dog, so he doesn’t miss much.”

As Gaj and Hasik have learned, bloodhounds are the perfect hunting dogs. Red’s olfactory system is “a million times better than a human,” Gaj said. His long ears help sweep up the smells as he wrinkles up his face to trap the odors, and keeps his nose to the ground, as Red demonstrated by tracking a visitor to the fire station.

His handlers watch to see which way he is going. When he gets close to his target, he gets real excited.

Red has tracked down a burglary suspect; found a drunken driver who ran into a cornfield after a crash, and traced a missing teen who left an underage drinking party and hopped a train. Red traced the teen’s scent to the train station, and authorities found the teen when he arrived at Union Station in downtown Chicago, Gaj said.

“Everybody sheds skin cells. Every person leaves a trail,” Gaj said.

Red has had advanced training, in which he has learned to follow a trail in water, too.

Around the firehouse, he has been the perfect pet, protecting his turf and barking when strangers approach.

He loves attention and socializes well with children.

When the tones and sirens go off, he knows it’s time to get in his cage.

When he’s not in training, Red might be digging a hole, eating or — more typically — sleeping, firefighters said.

He makes the rounds at night, getting petted and hugged by everyone on duty, but he’s partial to his handlers, often greeting them when they return from a call.

“He’s a great stress reliever, with a goofy face that you just love,” Hasik said. “He’s been a real good dog for us. We got lucky.”

The community has embraced Red as well, welcoming him into schools. The Doggie Salon has provided free grooming, and Carey Animal Clinic offers vet services at greatly reduced rates, Hasik said.

“We’re happy to have him,” Mead said.

Finding that 10-year-old girl was one of Red’s best assignments.

“It was a great outcome,” he said.

“He is the perfect firehouse dog,” Lt. Dennis Randolph said. “If we could just get rid of the drool.”

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