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Wyatt’s Story

December 8, 2009

How a 6-month-old named Wyatt escaped certain death, then began a career recovering those less lucky.

(Hint: it has to do with smell.)

The drowning victim had been at the bottom of Rend Lake for four days and three nights.
Above, the lake’s shoreline was teeming with life. Trampling the shoots and sprouts of Spring were teams of grim authorities, huddled at staging areas to launch net drags in sections of the lake’s 18,900 water acres. It was April, 2005, and Murphysborough, Illinois, was waiting for closure.
On that fourth day, volunteer Nancy Thornton climbed from her truck after an urgent, two-hour ride from Saint Louis. Leaping out behind her was the truck’s passenger, a 150-pound, black Rottweiller named Wyatt. Tongue out, nose already to air, Nancy’s search-and-recover trainee was there for his first work on water.
Differing from rescue dogs, which hunt for the living, recovery or cadaver dogs are trained to locate decomposed human tissue, blood and bones, often hidden. Wyatt’s training included samples of all, as well as the chemical compound Sigma Pseudo™ Corpse Scent, which mimics the scent of a drowned victim in depths up to 12 feet.
Nancy recalls that day at Rend: “First we ran the bank. I got good indications from Wyatt toward the water, so I asked for a boat and started from the far end of the cove, working out. Waves kicked in and we changed the search grid, but at one point Wyatt became agitated, and I knew we had something.”
She asked a patrol boat to drop a buoy at the spot.
Nancy crossed to another cove; when she looked back to the buoy, she saw the drag team already at work. “As we pulled up to the side of the drag boat, Wyatt became agitated again. I looked to the pilot of the drag boat and asked: ‘You’ve got him, don’t you?’ The pilot nodded.”
Wyatt got credit for the find.
Since that day, he’s added other key discoveries on land and water; has had two knee replacements, funded by his many friends and fans; and is still at work. “Two more years,” says Nancy, “he gets to retire.”
Not bad for the formerly incarcerated. In 2001, Nancy adopted the six-month-old Rott from a Saint Louis animal shelter, where his antisocial behavior had earned him a scheduled date for euthanasia. “One family was eyeing him for what I suspected was more aggressive behavior. I called my husband and told him we just got our fourth dog. Soon after I thought of the recovery work as a way to help Wyatt pay his debt to society. I think he has.”
By day, Nancy is a marketing specialist for the Solae Corporation. Like the other canine trainers she cites as mentors, she donates her time and pays her own expenses for training and travel.

On a recent afternoon in a Saint Louis park, Nancy demonstrates Wyatt’s skills to visitors by planting three scent-based tricks; Wyatt solves all, rewarded with treats and pets. As Nancy tells Wyatt’s story, the Rott fidgets like any red-blooded canine taunted by nearby squirrels. He turns and eagerly seeks more of the visitors’ attention.
“Down!” commands Nancy, adding a hand signal. “It’s not all about Wyatt,” she reminds him. Wyatt accepts this assessment, or at least pretends to. He quiets and stretches out on the ground.
“Good boy,” says Nancy, petting his side. “Good Wyatt.”

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