Happy Outcome On A Search...appy Outcome On A Search... When Alzheimer's Patient is found

written by Roxanne Dunn

On a Saturday, during Absaroka Search Dogs' regular training weekend, we received a search callout from Sweet Grass County Sheriff's Office. We responded to the request with five ASD teams. We arrived at search base, near Moreland Sheep Mountain Ranch several miles north of Springdale, in a convoy. We were briefed by a member of Sweetgrass SAR, Alan Ronnenberg, also a handler with ASD and Dan Tronrud, a Sheriff's Deputy.

The victim, Kenneth Briggs, had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, left his home in Riverton Tuesday, October 6. His family reported him missing but police had no clue to his whereabouts until Friday evening when Wayne Hansen, of Moreland Sheep Mountain Ranch, found an abandoned car in a remote pasture. A Sweet Grass County Sheriff's deputy, Mike Rodriguez, inspected the car and the registration matched that of the missing Briggs. Sheriff George Ames activated the search and rescue (SAR) team Saturday morning. That morning mantrackers had picked up a few foot prints, that may belong to the missing subject, however cattle had destroyed any possibility of mantrackers continuing on the track. Adding to the urgency of the search was the incoming weather. The temperature dropped 20 degrees in about an hour and there was rain predicted.

Given the predictable patterns about Alzheimer's' behavior we estimated that Mr. Briggs would travel the easiest route, downhill and when reaching a barrier, would not likely cross. The abandoned vehicle left a few clues to the victim's behavior and a scent article, which we cut up into five pieces to be disbursed among dog handlers. The vehicle was pointing down the valley. A deputy reported that the lights of Livingston could be seen in the distance. This may have been an attractant to someone in distress. 

We decided to send two handlers to check the track leads, Mark Polakoff and Eiger, and Lee Dunn and Sky. The remaining three handlers and dogs would do a corridor search of the valley leading to the main dirt road and downhill from the victim's abandoned vehicle. We set off quickly, with winter packs and full medical supplies. Given the victim's age, his condition and the cold weather each night he had been out, there was only slight hope that he could be alive. Vikki Fenton-Anderberg/Pilot took the left side of the corridor, Lynn Chan/Tor took the middle and Ash and myself took the right. We spread out 100 yards apart. Vikki and Lynn each took with a member of Sweetgrass SAR, as a backup person. My backup was Collette Daigle-Berg, a candidate member of ASD, and Yellowstone Park Ranger.

As we searched the winds were shifting, due to the approaching storm. I noted that the winds were mainly coming from behind and slightly to my right. I thought I would have to give more thorough coverage on my return to search base than on going out, because the winds were not in my favor. Collette, Ash and myself were working along a natural boundary. It was a steep drop into a valley. Below us in the valley was Dan Tronrud and another ground searcher. We could see them below us on occasion. We had a high point to cover, which had strange wind patterns, so I explained to Collette that we should do the perimeter around the hill, but not go straight to the top. As we did that, Ash headed down the steep side of the valley and stopped about 20' below us, worked her way back up, then slowly went down in another location, but about the same distance. I knew she could see the searchers in the valley, and would have gone to them by now, if that's what she was interested in, but she didn't. Suddenly Dan, and the other searchers from below, began shouting toward us. We couldn't make out what they were saying. They blew their whistle first, three times, then shot a gun into the air three times. They were pointing in Ash's direction and a little way up the coulee finger. Collette, Ash and Myself, all in that order, went in the direction the searchers were pointing and soon arrived at a bald headed man. It was Kenny Briggs, he was sitting, but wanting to get up. The shots had startled him. He was very weak and asked who we were. Ash sniffed him gently and laid down where I told her, and watched as we pulled medical supplies from our packs. I was really amazed he was still alive and able to talk to us! I kept telling him "you did a good job staying alive." I was thinking he must be a pretty tough old guy, then I remembered we had been told he was an oil rigger. Collette gave Mr. Briggs her hat and I gave him my water. Very quickly blankets arrived and an inflatable board. After being warmed, Kenny said, "I didn't think anyone would find me." He was packaged and kept warm in the Suburban when the helicopter arrived and took him to Billings.

When we had time to discuss what had happened and analyzed the wind patterns, we quickly put it all together. Dan Tronrud said that he would "not have seen the man, if he wasn't watching what the dog was interested in." He first heard Ashes bell, looked up and scanned the coulee at her level. Dan has worked with our Unit many times, and has learned to "watch the dog". I believe Ash was picking up rifts of scent being carried down the coulee. The coulee was acting like a washing machine and trapping the scent in a swirling pattern. The winds were still from behind us and the victim was out in front of us. The only place to catch scent was in the coulee. If we had moved about 20 yds past the victim Ash would have picked up his scent and probably had very little time to do a refind, because he was so close. Other handlers confirmed this theory. Lynn Chan, who was closest to me on my right was starting to see Tor alert on a rifting scent, but loosing it again in certain places. She was up on a plateau and would have had to be even further past the victim for Tor to catch his scent cone. It was a matter of minutes before several dog teams would have been working the same scent cone and coming in on the victim.

His family, assisting in the search, cheered when they heard the news that Briggs had been found. His wife said later to all the searchers, "I can't believe he's alive. Thanks so much to all of you who helped. You are very special people."

At a search debriefing Saturday evening, Sheriff George Ames said, "we had a great turnout of SAR members. I think Mr. Briggs was very lucky that we had so many people searching and that we found him so quickly. I'm not sure he could have survived another night, especially with the storm front coming in."

I was really excited to be in on a search where everything came together and a life was saved. This happy ending will be providing my motivation for searching for the next ten years.