For Alvernia occupational therapy professor Greg Chown, man’s best friend is his vital link to helping families find missing loved ones — and closure.
Tasked with finding and recovering missing persons, search and rescue volunteers live on the edge of hope and heartbreak. Assistant professor of occupational therapy Gregory Chown makes up half of a K-9 team that participates in search and rescue operations in Berks County and beyond.
Chown’s other half is his chocolate lab Krabi, certified in human remains detection (HRD).
As a “cadaver dog,” 10-year-old Krabi is trained to scent and locate human remains, tissue, blood and bone in various states of decomposition. Searching on land and water, at crime scenes or disaster sites, K-9 teams like Chown and Krabi do the vital work of locating the missing and facilitating justice.
“For me, it’s about helping others during difficult times,” says Chown. “These types of situations are stressful for families and loved ones. Although difficult and dangerous at times, this type of work can offer families a sense of hope, provide answers or offer closure.”
Before moving to Reading in 2007, Chown specialized in hand injuries and burns at a hospital in Singapore. There, he adopted Krabi, named for a beautiful area on the west coast of southern Thailand.
After his move here, looking for an activity to share with Krabi, Chown decided on search and rescue. “I didn’t want just a pet, but a working dog,” he says. “I’d always been interested in search and rescue, and thought it would be interesting to do it with a dog.”
Chown joined a group in Philadelphia called the Search and Rescue Dogs of Pennsylvania. The training involves solving “problems,” or specific search and rescue scenarios.
Sometimes, the teams are given information to work with. But often, the problems are “blind,” offering no clues as to how to proceed. “It’s vital to do both types of problems to learn to read your dog and understand what he or she is trying to tell you,” says Chown.
Such expertise requires frequent, rigorous training for both handler and dog. Chown has undergone hundreds of hours of training and is certified in numerous search and rescue skills by the National Association for Search and Rescue, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and local and regional search and rescue operations.
Krabi, in turn, has been certified by the Pennsylvania Police K-9 Association, the American Working Dog Association and Country Class Canines Advanced Land Human Remains Detection.
Chown has attended numerous advanced human remains detection workshops hosted by Bay Area Recovery Canines, an Annapolis, Md., team specializing in the recovery of missing persons and evidence searches. As a volunteer, Chown pays for all training and works with Krabi weekly to keep their skills sharp.
Dogs trained in HRD know to bark and sit or lie down on the spot where they’ve scented remains, which can be undetectable at first glance, says Chown. “If I’m confused, I ask Krabi, ‘Where is it?’ and she’ll tap her paw on the area,” he says. “She’s saying, ‘It’s here — just look a little closer.’”
In 2010, he and Krabi joined the K-9 Team at Middle Creek Search and Rescue in Ephrata, where they volunteer today. They work four to six cases a year. Some are searches, where a missing person is assumed alive. Sadly, others are recovery operations.
Chown can’t comment on most cases they’ve worked — some are cold cases, while others are wending their way through the courts. However, there are a few he can talk about.
In August 2015, he and Krabi traveled to Schuylkill Haven. In a discovery that made international news, a road crew had found human bones — thought to be part of a mass grave dug during the 1918 influenza pandemic — along a stretch of Route 61.
When they were invited to the site to train, Chown accepted — “you just don’t get cases like this,” he says. As Krabi laid on spots where she’d scented bones, Chown marked them with flags. Ultimately, exposed bones were cleared, and those beneath the surface were left undisturbed.
In September 2011, they searched for a flood victim. “My first big case,” says Chown. “While I was ready for it, I was shocked by the magnitude of the search area and the power of what the water could do. The search area was still dangerous — a lot of debris, and water that was still high and moving rapidly. It was hard going, and I was concerned about Krabi’s safety.
“At one point, she jumped in the river to swim out a bit and started to get swept away. I managed to jump in the water and snag her before that happened.”
Ultimately, Krabi picked up the man’s scent. “We couldn’t see him — he was submerged,” says Chown. “But she kept telling me, ‘He’s here.’” When the waters receded the next day, the man was recovered in that area.
Chown plans to retire Krabi in the next 18 months. His next dog will already be trained in HRD, and the new team will bring the same level of commitment, training and dedication to their work.
“I’m on call 24/7. You have to be willing to pack up your gear and your dog on a moment’s notice to go to a search site. That call could come during the day or in the middle of the night,” says Chown.
But there’s no hesitation; both handler and dog have the drive for the work. Chown’s gear — which includes a communications radio and GPS system, compass and flashlight, first-aid kit and rope, as well as food and water for himself and Krabi — is always packed and ready to go.
“When Krabi sees me pack the car, and her cage comes out, she gets excited,” says Chown. “She knows we’re going to work.”