When Sierra LaMar went missing, Kristine Black was one of the first volunteers to join the search for the Morgan Hill-area teen who vanished three months ago.
Black -- a teacher's aide at Redwood Middle School in Saratoga -- is no stranger to missing person cases.
As a 13-year member of the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Search and Rescue team, she's been involved in her fair share of searches and each has been memorable.
"Each search I have gone on has become a part of me," Black said.
Some come to mind instantly, such as the case involving a 4-year-old boy who couldn't speak and went missing two years ago. He had undergone brain surgery in Mexico and had a scar on the side of his head -- the only clue searchers had to go on. Black's German shepherd, Klaus, tracked the boy that same day to a pizza parlor arcade in San Jose, where he was playing in a ball pit.
It is Black's work with the central region of the California Rescue Dog Association that brings her many such moments.
The association is the largest K-9 search and rescue organization in the nation, with more than 100 trained and certified search dog teams on call around the clock. Locally, CARDA serves as a nonprofit resource for the California Emergency Management Agency and sheriff's departments in assisting with missing persons cases.
The hours are inconvenient -- usually late at night -- and the work is often challenging, but the volunteers are driven by
"We're a very strong, community-oriented group," she said.
She has trained three German shepherds--no easy task considering the minimum three days a week it requires.
Her partners include 7-year-old Osara, a dog that specializes in detecting human remains, and 2-year-old Diesel, a dog that trails the path traveled by a missing person. Then there's Klaus, also a trailing dog who retired this month at the age of 11 after nearly a decade of service and about 100 searches that took him and his handler from Oregon to San Diego.
For Black, the decision to retire her beloved Klaus was not an easy one. Even talking about it brings tears to her eyes.
"It's hard," she said, fighting to hold back tears. "He's had a good career."
"I can read Klaus," said Black, describing their relationship as a partnership. "He can look me in the eye and I know exactly what he's thinking. It's all about this bond you have."
Kristin Pugh joined CARDA in January 2010 and up until now has worked as a "flanker," a volunteer who supports canine teams by shadowing handlers on searches and handling radio communications. As a flanker, Pugh assisted with three searches. In June 2010, Pugh began an apprenticeship to get her dog, Jet, certified. She had bought Jet thinking he would make a great hiking buddy but quickly realized she had a high-drive dog on her hands.
"My dog is very active. He's a hard-working guy," said the 49-year-old Los Gatos marketing consultant.
She started training Jet at 5 months old. The years of training have offered some lessons along the way, one being the power of incentives not just for handlers but for their dogs.
"There has to be some element of fun and enjoyment for them," said Pugh, who rewards her dog with a leather tug toy. "It's hard work for them."
For their human counterparts, the incentives go beyond tangible items.
Anita Schaul, a 56-year-old Campbell woman, joined CARDA for the same reasons as other handlers. The organization offers her an opportunity to make a difference, she said, and to enjoy the outdoors. With her two children now in their 20s, Schaul found she had time to pursue her own interests.
"I wanted something to fill my extra time, that made me feel I had a purpose," the schoolteacher said.
Like Black, Schaul also was involved in the search for Sierra as a member of the sheriff's search and rescue team, assisting handlers on three different occasions. Although Sierra's body has yet to be found, Antolin Garcia Torres, 21, of Morgan Hill, has been charged with murder and kidnapping in connection with the 15-year-old.
"You put your heart and soul into it," Schaul said of her work. "You don't want to fail, because when you do find that missing person, there's nothing like it."