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Scottsburg workshop helps train canines to assist in search, rescue missions

For years, dogs have been known as man’s best friend, but Dr. Dorothy Fensterer and members of the Airscent, Tracking and Trailing Search and Rescue Dogs of Virginia team are putting that slogan to the test.

Fensterer believes her dog, Pepper, may one day save a life.

A chiropractor with DeGraw Chiropractic in South Boston, Fensterer has been training for approximately six months, and her border collie, Pepper, has been in training for at least two years.

Fensterer and other members of the Airscent, Tracking and Trailing Search and Rescue Dogs of Virginia are training their canines to assist with search and rescue and the recovery of human remains.

Members of the ATT Search and Rescue Dogs of Virginia along with canine teams from Pennsylvania, Maryland and New York attended a multi-discipline canine workshop held the first weekend in March at Staunton River State Park in Scottsburg.

According to Fensterer, during the workshop teams were evaluated in trailing, cadaver and air scent disciplines through field testing. 

Attending were Fensterer, Garland Newton Jr. of Halifax and his dog, Fargo, and Joanne Kuchinski of Danville with her dogs, Logan and Ginger.

Kuchinski is the training officer for their team, and she works with Logan, a malinois/lab mix. Ginger, a malinois, is the team’s air scent canine. 

Newton has been working exclusively with his dog, Fargo, in human remains detection. Other dogs that work with the team include a Phil Sheppard who is currently on medical leave and Samson, a chocolate lab.

Fensterer got involved with the team in an effort “to give back to the community and possibly one day save a life.”

She also added her dog, Pepper, and Newton’s dog, Fargo, are working dogs who have to work to be happy.

“This is all a job/game to them, and they find satisfaction and happiness in what they do,” she added.

While training the dogs, Fensterer said the air scent and trailing dogs’ people are sent out to lay a trail and hide, sometimes letting the trail “age” for several hours before starting the search.

“The trails must have turns, intersections, possibly crossing several different types of surfaces such as pavement, grass, water etc. 

“For the human remains detection dogs, we send out a person to hide items that have been treated with the scent of human decomposition. These items could be buried, hidden in a vehicle or building, even under water,” said Fensterer.

She hopes to become state certified and become part of a fully operational team so one day she can share and teach what she has learned with others.

“All in all pretty much everything we do with our dogs is considered training, whether it is actual field work, going for a walk down the street or in the park to play. We try to acclimate them to as many different distractions as possible,” said Fensterer.

The ATT Search and Rescue Dogs of Virginia are currently seeking individuals who are interested in working with canine search and rescue as handlers or volunteers. 

According to Fensterer, Halifax County does have its own ground search and rescue unit of which she is a member, but ATT Search and Rescue Dogs of Virginia is the only canine team training for search and rescue within at least a 100-mile radius. 

“We are constantly searching for new members and not just those who wish to train a canine. We also need flankers and volunteers who would like to spend the day hiding for the dogs. It’s a very strenuous, time-consuming job, but I love it, and the payoff is fantastic,” Fensterer concluded.

ATT Search and Rescue Dogs of Virginia is a non-profit, all volunteer organization with the primary mission of responding to wilderness, rural, suburban and urban search and rescue incidents for missing or injured persons in the Halifax, Pittsylvania, Henry and Franklin County area. ATT primarily helps locate lost individuals.

For more information, contact ATT Search and Rescue Dogs of Virginia at P.O. 10205 Danville, Virginia 24543 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .