Two years ago, Davene ("Dave-een") King was pulling Hurricane Katrina victims from New Orleans floodwater. She drove past alligators on the highway and saw people with zombie stares trying to escape the ruined city.
King, 46, of Turlock returned ill and exhausted from three weeks of volunteering with the American Red Cross in New Orleans. Her immune system was down and so were her spirits. She wasn't sleeping or eating right, she said. King underwent rounds of antibiotics and found herself often overwhelmed by tears.
"It was post-traumatic stress," she said. "When I went to Katrina, I was so horrified by the whole situation. Katrina changed my life. This is what healed me."
The "this" King alluded to is her dog, also named Katrina: a glossy black, 16-month-old Doberman pinscher that King and her husband, Philip Latenser, bought to train as a volunteer search and rescue dog for the state Office of Emergency Services.
King saw cadaver dogs in New Orleans searching through the rubble of collapsed houses to find victims.
When she saw them, she saw her future.
She decided soon after she returned that she wanted to raise a puppy and train it for search and rescue.
King used to work as a contracts analyst for a semiconductor factory in Eugene, Ore. These days, she's a full-time trainer, preparing Katrina to become mission-ready by the end of the year. She and her husband are trained as Katrina's handlers. The work they hope to do with OES is volunteer. They're the only known volunteers in the county working to certify their dog to help with search efforts, officials say.
U.S. law enforcement agencies have used dogs since the late 1800s, said Russ Hess, director of the United States Police Canine Association, a national organization that looks at how dogs are used and trained in law enforcement. Dogs were used even earlier in Europe, beginning in Belgium, said Hess, when reached in Ohio by telephone.
In the late 19th century, dogs served mainly as protection on routine patrols for night watchmen in places such as New York City, he said. That practice lasted for about 50 years, before dogs fell out of use.
'Motivation in her heart'
They were brought back in force during the civil rights era of the 1950s and '60s, mainly as a way to control people, Hess said. Handlers noticed their dogs could do more: sniffing out drugs and contraband, finding suspects and lost people.
"The dog's ability to locate explosives is still unmatched by any machine," Hess said. "It's pretty hard to say the high point of a dog's ability because we really don't know. They're used to find everything from cancer to termites to leaks in oil and gas pipelines. And it's probably the cheapest employee the department has. He works for the love of the handler."
King and her husband have spent about $20,000 on Katrina, including her training, travel for various certifications and other costs.
Many people buy dogs with the goal of training them for search and rescue, said Carol Shapiro, a rescue dog trainer whom King calls her mentor. But 99.9 percent of them, she said, don't make it past a month, once they realize the time, effort and costs involved.
"Davene has got the motivation in her heart. And she's got a little edge to her," said Shapiro, whose dogs work with the California Rescue Dog Association to find bodies; last Tuesday she was in Tuolumne County helping find the body of a murdered Wallace man.
King and her husband visited 10 trainers, from Sacramento to Monterey, before finding 6-week-old Katrina at a Modesto trainer's house in June 2006. The puppy was "so full of play" that King knew she'd found the right dog. Searching has to be a game for dogs, agreed King and Shapiro, or they won't want to do it.
Katrina, a quiet, 90-pound dog that likes to climb on King's lap, is a trailing, or tracking, dog. She uses scent, on clothing or other personal articles, to find an item's owner. These dogs can find a person by following minute particles of human tissue or skin cells cast off as the person travels. These heavier-than-air particles usually are close to the ground or on nearby foliage, so trailing dogs often keep their noses to the ground as they work.
In the beginning, King and Katrina trained for two hours every morning. They still train daily. Shapiro, who lives in Auburn, would give King homework exercises, such as following small trails and matching a dirty sock to its mate out of three choices. Katrina learned how to indicate when she found something and how not to touch "evidence" at what could be a crime scene.
To help Katrina learn tracking, King stops strangers on the street and asks them to hide so Katrina can find them. Many comply. Because a Doberman's size and menacing bark sometimes frighten people, King taught Katrina to lick the lost person upon discovery.
Trailing dogs can "scent" off a footprint. They can determine whether a bloody hat belongs to a perpetrator or a victim. King hopes to train Katrina to lock in on the scent of a suspect from a victim's body.
"We smell spaghetti cooking. They smell basil, mushrooms, garlic," said trainer Shapiro. "They can smell who you slept with last night."
Sgt. Dennis Cordova, canine supervisor for the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department, said his is the most-used specialty unit in the sheriff's office, which has six dogs. Modesto's police department has 11; the agencies share resources, Cordova said.
Timing is critical
In California, counties handle their own search and rescue missions. If they don't have enough resources, they have to call dogs from other areas. Cordova said that's rare in Stanislaus County. But, he said, liability issues aside, it could be valuable to have a county volunteer with an OES-certified dog.
Modesto police Detective Craig Grogan said a local search and rescue team could come in handy when timing is critical. Imagine, he said, a 100-degree day and a lost child or Alzhei-mer's patient.
"If we can get somebody out quickly on a missing persons case who can do a track for us, it's a pretty exciting idea," he said.
Two years after Hurricane Ka-trina caused severe destruction, King remains haunted.
"To this day, I can still see that look in people's eyes, that blank stare," she said, as Katrina nuzzled into King's side. "But I don't cry all the time now. I'm out and active with the dog. I have a purpose. I can help people."
Katrina has completed her urban search and rescue certification; she's working on wilderness training. She's smelled a cadaver and shown the ability to balance on rocks. She's mapped out the trail an 82-year-old with dementia took when he ran away from his care home. King hopes to take the OES certification test by the end of the year.
"It's something I can do to contribute back into my commu-nity," she said. "I don't have to go to New Orleans anymore."
Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2235.