Local search dogs ‘instrumental’ in finding Ottawa boy who drowned in river, family says

The search for an 11-year-old boy who fell into the St. Lawrence River near Rockport, Ont. this fall took an agonizing 48 days and involved dozens of people from amateur dive teams and recreational boaters to military divers, police marine and helicopter units and the Canadian Coast Guard.

His body was finally found on Oct. 18 by a sonar expert trolling the water from above but the location in a channel near Club Island was no surprise. He was exactly where a team of search and rescue dogs from Ottawa pointed more than a month earlier.

The dogs – Breeze, Quinn, Grief and Recce – are from the Ottawa Valley Search and Rescue Dog Association. Their handler Kim Cooper insists the dogs were just one part of the effort but the boy’s family and friends on social media say the dogs were “instrumental” to finding him.

They are so grateful that all donations made after Oct. 18 to a GoFundMe page to pay for the search efforts will be redirected to the association in thanks.

Cooper won’t divulge many details about the search for the boy. His family has requested privacy as they grieve. His funeral was in Ottawa Tuesday.

He went missing Sept. 1 when the boat he was on with four other people suddenly capsized. He was the only one who didn’t resurface. After a week of intense searching failed to locate him, the family was connected with Cooper. She was a founding member of the search-and-rescue group almost three decades ago and is one of five dog-handlers involved in the volunteer charity now.

It was the sixth time this year Cooper got a call for help. About half the requests are for people missing in bodies of water. She says police have cadaver dogs but they aren’t trained to search on water.

The dogs are trained to find the scent of a body. One at a time the dogs are perched on the bow of a boat, secured by a leash that gives them enough leeway to lean well over the side and get their noses as close to the water as possible. The boat is then driven back and forth across the water.

When it smells the scent of a body the dog gets excited, wags its tail, jumps around and sometimes even barks. And then it uses its nose as a pointer, directing the boat operator where to travel next.

In a successful search the dog will suddenly stop jumping around and go quiet.

“That’s the moment we’re looking for,” says Cooper. “This is the spot.”

Even just six metres upwind of a body the dog will no longer be able to smell it, so the indicator that the body is near typically comes when the boat has just passed over it to the upwind side, Cooper says.

Many times the handlers will go back out with a second dog, even a third, to verify the find. The water where bodies end up can be treacherous for divers and she doesn’t want to put someone at risk unless she is sure.

In this case searching was hampered by murky water. Divers could only see about a metre in front of them, which made for slow going in a river that’s 60 metres deep in places. Visibility started to improve in early October, and the sonar expert finally spotted the boy’s body on Oct. 18.

Cooper says the sonar specialist is the “hero” who ultimately finished the search and the dogs were only one element of the effort. She credits the family’s effort to keep going for five weeks after the dogs indicated the spot.

“Any search, it is never one person or one dog or one resource that solves it, it’s everything coming together,” she says.

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