In this scenario, I’m dead. I’ve crawled underneath a scrubby mānuka to get out of the wind, and here my body lies, curled into a ball. I can hear crickets singing, the hum of a bee, the scuffle of birds in the tree above, oblivious to my presence. My right leg is going numb. I should have considered my position more carefully before committing to the part. Chill air rises from the creek spilling down the gut of the hillside below. I press my forehead against the papery trunk of the mānuka, waiting.
Thick breathing, getting louder. Heavy, rapid footsteps coming closer. A white-and-brown collie erupts through the scrub at my feet, much smaller than the noise it was making. It bustles around me, sits at my back, and starts barking.
I hear splashing in the creek. “Yes!” yells a woman. She’s almost swimming through the scrub to get to us. “Good girl. Good girl.” She pulls a frisbee out of her pocket and the dog leaps for it, turning in delighted circles.
Jana Dodds and her border collie kelpie cross, Roxy, are one of the trainee teams at this September’s dog camp. So far, Roxy is acing this particular test. No wonder Dodds looks relieved. Last camp, the assessors were full of compliments for Dodds, but they weren’t sure about her dog. Roxy was searching too tentatively, easily defeated by obstacles like scrub or fallen trees—the opposite of Dodds, who is an endurance athlete in her spare time. Earlier this year, she competed in Godzone, a hardcore multisport race in Fiordland. She runs up the mountains surrounding Lake Hāwea for fun.
But Roxy is a different dog this camp. Earlier, I’d watched her pick up the scent of a hidden person from hundreds of metres away and run straight to them as if reeled in on a line. When a dog catches a scent in the air, it’s called a strike, and Roxy never wavered.
“All done,” says Dodds, and Roxy drops the frisbee. It’s the signal playtime is over. “Are you ready?” Roxy gets very focused, twitching with excitement. Dodds angles her body perpendicular to the wind: the direction she wants Roxy to run in. “Searching!” The dog launches herself down the creek. There’s one more person hidden somewhere among the matagouri and piles of slash.
Soon, the next dog-and-handler team is going to be searching for me. I stretch out my legs into a more comfortable position and resume my duty as a corpse.
When Dodds first joined Land Search and Rescue (LandSAR), she used to play dead, too. She didn’t have a dog back then, but she often trained with another volunteer who did: long-time dog handler Barry Dougherty. For a few hours every weekend, Dodds would hide for Dougherty’s dogs to seek.
When Dodds was deployed on a real search for a missing teenage girl in Central Otago, she was paired up with Dougherty. The search stretched on: three days, four days. By the fifth day, there wasn’t a lot of optimism going around. It was the middle of winter. The girl had spent four nights outdoors. She had only her school bag with her. And circumstances suggested that she didn’t want to be found.
Dougherty wrote the search plan for the dogs that day. He, Dodds and his search dogs, Jeffrey and Red, were following a four-wheel drive track near the Otago Central Rail Trail—an area that had already been covered by human searchers. Jeffrey, the young lab, suddenly made for a fence off to Dougherty’s left-hand side and stuck his nose through. Probably after a possum, thought Dougherty.
Across the fence was boggy, impenetrable scrub—gorse, broom, willows, blackberry. Dougherty walked down the fence to where there was a gap in the vegetation, and sent Red in to search. Red disappeared around the corner and started barking.
Dougherty followed, Dodds a little behind. They saw a person curled into a ball, trying to hide beneath a fallen tree trunk.
The girl wasn’t well, mentally or physically, but she was alive. Dodds called in the news, and after that, the only thing she could hear on the radio was cheering.
“It was a moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” Dodds tells me. It was also the moment she resolved to train a search dog—or, at least, to try.
What all the trainees at dog camp want is to become operational. That’s when a human–canine team is officially certified by LandSAR to look for missing people. In practical terms, becoming operational means getting the chance to save a person’s life. And they do: New Zealand’s 16 operational dog teams were called on more than 100 times in the last year.
Standing between the trainees and becoming operational is an assessment they have to pass with perfect marks. Air-scenting dogs have to find hidden people; ground-scenting dogs have to follow a track. Both types of dog have to find hidden objects, known as articles.
It’s a long process to train a search dog—perhaps two years. It’s all volunteer work, even once teams become operational. During that time, trainees attend dog camp every six months, and they have to progress their skills from one camp to the next to be invited back. There’s Dan Mabey, a police officer from Picton, who’s at his very first camp with his malamute, and Richard Warrington, who has trained two successful dogs before and is now on pup three, an over-energetic lab pointer he’s named Karen (“because she’s such a pain in the butt”). Giuliana Petronelli is a year into training her first dog, and she didn’t get great reviews last camp—like Dodds—so there’s a question mark over her future. And for two teams, Emma Milburn and Deo Encarnacion, this camp is make or break: they’ll either get the nod to go up for assessment or they’ll be dropped from the programme.
Day one is demoralising for the tracking teams. Petronelli knows that she and her German shepherd, Lanza, weren’t performing to the standard. Conditions were tough—short grass, hot sun. Scent dissipated quickly. Even the operational teams training alongside them struggled. Petronelli knows that Lanza hasn’t yet shown her capabilities—but they have just one more day to prove themselves.
Petronelli used to be a representative rugby player, then a high-school teacher, and now she’s a lawyer. She and her wife, Rosie Petronelli, breed German shepherds; both women hope to reach operational status with LandSAR dogs, but they’ll have to take turns while they’re raising kids, and Giuliana gets to go first. She already works long hours, then there’s exercises with Lanza in the evenings, and a whole day tracking in the weekends. She’s filled with guilt—about all the time she’s spent away from her wife and their two-year-old daughter, about how it may all have been for nothing.
Emma Milburn holds her palms up and closes her eyes, and for a moment I think she’s praying. She’s feeling the breeze.
We’re on a high-country station somewhere between Castle Hill and Cass, and as far as the eye can see, the landscape is tussock and rock and the pale limbs of dead wilding pines.
It’s time for articles, which is like an Easter-egg hunt for dogs. One of the assessors, Damian Hancock, has hidden a glove, a shoe and a backpack across an area roughly the size of a sports field for the trainee dogs to find. Milburn’s bearded collie cross, Teka, has to locate each one, then give the same response each time—a bark.
Up on the brow of the hill, Hancock has set up a three-seater foldable camping chair, which functions as a commentary box for the assessors. It’s currently occupied by Hancock’s German shorthaired pointer, Declan. A retired drug-detector dog, Declan is extremely personable. Strangers think he’s friendly, always wandering over for a pat; in fact, he’s checking them for cannabis, heroin or methamphetamine. It’s the only way he knows how to relate to people.
Teka launches into the search area. We know where the articles are concealed, but Milburn doesn’t.
“Find it!” Milburn calls. “Find it, Teka!”
“That’s just white noise to the dog,” murmurs assessor Chris Martin.
Teka appears to catch the scent of the glove, and homes in on it—but then she veers off, and now she’s running up and down the boundary of the area, yipping.
“That’s like a frustration bark,” says Martin.
“You can see why training a response is so important,” says Hancock. “She definitely found that one. She walked all the way around it.”
Teka doesn’t find any of the articles on her own, and afterwards, Milburn looks deflated. They’d been doing well at this exercise at home, but here Teka is distracted, unable to focus.
She’s not the only dog to struggle. Rua, a vizsla, finds one of the articles, then looks towards her handler, Deo Encarnacion, for reassurance—just at the moment he turns away to look where he’s going. Unsure, she doesn’t give the right response. The find doesn’t count.
Richard Warrington’s dog, Karen, is more direct with her searches, locating articles and people with the sort of efficiency that suggests she has much better things to do with her day.
I can see that following human scent is easy for the dogs; it’s telling their handlers about what they’ve found that Rua and Teka are getting stuck on. “They just get a little bit confused,” says Hancock.
On a real search, the stakes are too high for confusion. Barry Dougherty learned from the teenage girl he located that several dogs—ordinary ones, just out for a walk—had visited her hiding place during the days she spent outdoors. Without a search dog, the chances of finding her would have been “very slim”.
That said, funny things happen during assessments. The dogs feel your nerves. Or they just don’t play along. “Sometimes they give you the bird and do their own thing,” Ron Ealam tells me later that evening. He’s an old hand at this—his collie, Skyla, is his third operational dog. But she disdains article searches.
“On a real search they’re way better,” says Chris Pansters.
“They feel your adrenaline and get hopped up and they can go until three in the morning.”
Pansters and Goose, a German shepherd who failed police-dog school for being too nice, have been operational for about a year. Pansters shows me a picture of Goose on a search in the middle of the night, eyes wide, ready to go.
Paul Donovan from Wakatipu LandSAR is fascinated by stories of Olympic athletes who spend years training for a 10-second race. The people at this camp spend years training for a single weekend. “I’ve been stressed at work and stuff,” he says, “but nothing like the stress of the first assessment. I’ve had a family who has lost their kids standing there, hoping I find them, and it wasn’t as stressful as the first assessment.” (The kids were found.)
Donovan used to be an accountant; he retired young, and now devotes his time to things like LandSAR. He isn’t resentful of the pressure. “You can’t lower your standards just because you’re a volunteer organisation, right?”
Most people, says Hancock, don’t understand the realities of training a working dog. “They just want a job for the dog that they love.”
But the life of a working dog is entirely different from that of a pet. Their playtime is in the form of training. Everything in a search dog’s life is aimed towards the search.
“There are two types of people: dog lovers and dog handlers,” Hancock is telling photographer Neil Silverwood.
“So which are you?” asks Silverwood.
“Dog handler,” he says. “Definitely. Dog handler.”
And yet there’s a streak of affection in there. Hancock gets close to upset when he feels the trainees aren’t praising their dogs enough.
It would be pretty hard to get this far if you didn’t have an outsize affection for dogs. These are the kinds of people who have pictures of their dogs on their phone backgrounds rather than pictures of their partners or children. They take a look at a landscape and think, I’d like to go tracking through there. They spend Sundays training together. They’ve organised a quiz night during the camp so that they don’t spend every evening talking about dogs. But they still do.
Giuliana Petronelli is preparing to cast her dog. It’s a bit like whirling a lasso, except what she’s whirling is a German shepherd.
She clips a long rope onto Lanza’s harness. The wind is so strong it’s lifting dust in little spirals from the gravel road behind us. Ahead, the river valley of Mount White Station sprawls into the distance, the Waimakariri river unknotting along the plain.
Letting out the rope, Petronelli begins turning in slow motion, guiding Lanza to run around her as she walks. The dog is describing a set of overlapping circles, like Olympic rings, and Petronelli bisects them. “Soft hands on the line,” calls Bridget Martin, an experienced dog handler, from the road edge. “Watch her nose.”
Petronelli’s face is fixed in concentration; she’s trying to keep the line slack enough for Lanza to move freely but taut enough to be connected to her, while she watches Lanza for any change in her manner.
There. Lanza’s nose flicks to the right as if drawn by an unseen force, and she starts trotting downhill—then hesitates a moment, turns around, nose to the ground.
“Another little backtrack,” says Martin. “Allow her to sort that out in her head.”
Tracking dogs often go over the same ground in order to confirm which scent they’re following. Petronelli waits. And now Lanza resumes the direction she first struck out on with new confidence, pulling at the line, picking up speed.
“Get in behind her, actually, because she’s looking pretty good,” calls Martin. Petronelli starts to jog and Martin breaks from the sidelines, and soon we’re all running in single file behind the dog, careful not to mess up the track.
Lanza leads Petronelli through a beech copse, across a creek, around a hunk of matagouri, and back up the slope towards the dirt road. Martin already knows where this track goes—she made it, three hours ago, walking a route through the tussock—and she watches Lanza take every turn.
There’s a dog toy stashed in a bush to mark the end point. Lanza grabs it. Petronelli drops down on the tussock to play with her dog.
“Are you stoked?” asks Martin. “I’d be super stoked if I was you.”
Neither woman is the type to show feelings plainly on her face. (“Did I not look stoked?” Petronelli asks me later.)
Last dog camp, six months ago, Martin told Petronelli, “That dog’s not got it.” In the space of a few minutes, everything has been reversed. They’re back in the game—till next dog camp, at least.
Back at the lodge, the verdicts are in. Teka and Rua are out of the programme.
Milburn is miserable, but she isn’t surprised. She knows that Teka, unlike the other dogs, isn’t obsessed with the act of searching. “It’s the big kahuna, it’s the biggest thing in their life, and it’s not the biggest thing in her life. Sometimes she just likes running, and you can tell she’s not searching. It’s when she’s bouncing like a kangaroo. You know she’s not thinking about the task. She’s like, ‘Oh my god, I’m out here.’”
If this is so much effort, why bother? Why not just send people to search?
Dogs follow a different set of clues, ones that float on the wind or are pressed into tussock and mud, which means they’re not limited by sight in the way that people are. At night, in rough terrain, they excel where people struggle. This comes in handy when lost people don’t know they’re lost, or are trying to avoid being found—people who are mentally unwell, people with dementia, kids who hear shouting and think they’re in trouble.
And dogs can be crucial to finding bodies. When tramper Stephanie Simpson disappeared on the Brewster Track near Wānaka in 2020, it was Barry Dougherty’s dog Red who found the clue, on the fifth day of the search, that finally led searchers to her body: a pair of boots set neatly together on the side of Pyke Creek. (Simpson had taken her shoes off to swim or cross the creek, but met with some kind of accident doing so; her body was in the water.)
Many of the people at dog camp have an origin story—an origin search—that flashes through their minds when they’re questioning why they spend so much time, unpaid, on all of this. Donovan and Pansters each told me stories about locating missing people before those people succumbed to blood loss or cold; Milburn and Dougherty both spoke about the importance of bringing closure to families by finding a missing person’s body.
One of Bridget Martin’s first searches was for an elderly man with Alzheimer’s, a retired farmer, who’d wandered out of his home during the broadcast of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding. The next morning, Martin’s German shepherd, Zinzan, followed his scent to the creek he was lying in, still alive, where he told her, in a rare moment of lucidity: “Always trust the integrity of a dog.”
Martin, a sergeant in the Police, is observing the tracking teams out the window of her truck, where we’re sheltering from the wind. In between exercises, she’s telling me about her work on the national disaster victim identification unit. Martin has been called up to help identify bodies following the Christchurch terrorist attack, during the Pike River re-entry and after the eruption on Whakaari/White Island. It gets pretty grim. But the rest of the time, there are search dogs. Martin is training a new pup, Bandit, who’ll hopefully become her third operational dog. Bandit started on articles at eight weeks old, and she searches furiously, explosively. That’s the kind of energy Martin wants in the search.
“Saving lives is bloody serious, you know,” she says, watching through the windshield. “It’s the most serious thing there is.”