Rural Missouri Magazine
Using man's best friend to find the missing

by Jeff Joiner

Members of the Shawn Hornbeck Search and Rescue Team watch as a team member and his dog prepare to search for a missing person in a training exercise. The team was formed after the 2002 disappearnce of Shawn Hornbeck in Richwoods and now works primarily with search and rescue dogs to help find missing people, especially children.

It’s a hot, steamy day as a large group of people gathers on a wooded hillside to search for a lost man and woman. Not actually lost, the two volunteers are hiding in the woods waiting for dogs to literally sniff them out.

The searchers and their dogs have come together on a large farm near Steelville for a weekend of canine search and rescue training led by Mark Holmes, a Texas police detective and one of the country’s best search dog trainers.

When he’s not following one of his own bloodhounds, Holmes travels the country training others how to get the most out of their search dogs. Today he’s working with members of the Shawn Hornbeck Search and Rescue Team, an all-volunteer group based in Washington County that knows painfully well the need for well-trained search dogs.

The group was organized two years ago after the October 2002 disappearance of an 11-year-old boy near his home in Richwoods. No trace of Shawn Hornbeck has ever been found. Frustrated that local law enforcement agencies called off the initial search a few days after his disappearance, Shawn’s stepfather and mother organized local volunteers to continue looking for their son.

Shawn Hornbeck

see Searching for Shawn

“The typical response of law enforcement is search for 72 hours and they pack it up and go home. The parents are sitting there and they still don’t have their child and they’re like, ‘What do we do now?’” says Craig Akers, Shawn Hornbeck’s stepfather and the founder of the search and rescue team named for his son.

That group of volunteers became the Shawn Hornbeck Search and Rescue Team, an organization dedicated to helping search for lost people, especially children. The team has been involved in nearly two dozen missing person searches and continues to look for Shawn (see “Searching for Shawn” at right). The group concentrates on training search dogs and has brought Holmes in for an intense three days of hands-on instruction.

Akers and his German shepherd, Trax, walk along a long row of search team members. Trax takes a cursory sniff of each individual in the group, taking an inventory of the scents of people participating in the training. Then Akers takes a small gauze pad from a plastic bag and lets Trax take a whiff. The pair takes off through the woods in search of the source of the scent, the missing person.

“These dogs are trained to take the smell from a known person and follow it regardless of terrain, atmospheric conditions and distractions,” says Holmes as he trails Akers and Trax weaving in and out of trees, crossing barbed wire fences and stumbling through thick brush.

A bloodhound is often used for tracking scents because of its great sense of smell, but many dog breeds make good search dogs.

All dogs and cats have the ability to follow smells. It’s hard-wired in their brains, says Holmes, and is part of their hunting instincts that remain even in pets. What is amazing about search dogs is their ability to distinguish between dozens of different smells and hone in on one.

“All day long scents are literally exploding out of your body,” says Holmes. “Scent lingers in the air and eventually settles to the ground and onto vegetation. But even if a person walks across a paved parking lot, they leave behind their scent.”

Dogs can even pick up a person’s scent escaping from a moving vehicle. Holmes says it’s impossible for a person to escape their smell.

As an example Holmes has someone light a small smoke bomb and walk through the woods trailing behind a long yellow cloud. It’s mid-morning and damp and the smoke hangs thick in the air for a few seconds and then wafts through the woods on a slight breeze. More than 15 minutes later the smoke still hangs in the air. Like the smoke, a person’s scent can remain in an area for weeks depending on the terrain and atmospheric conditions, says Holmes.

There are many kinds of specially trained search and rescue dogs including those that find people trapped in collapsed buildings or search for human remains. But the dogs Holmes works with are trailing dogs, trained specifically to follow a person’s scent to its source. Akers and Trax meander through the woods and within 20 minutes the experienced dog finds the volunteer sitting in thick brush beneath a tree, totally out of sight of those walking only a few feet away.

Nationally known search and rescue dog trainer Mark Holmes points out a path to take to search and rescue team member John Hilton. Holmes, a Texas police detective and canine handler, travels the country teaching teams to work with search dogs.

“High praise,” says Holmes, as he encourages Akers and the volunteer to show the dog how happy they are he has found his man.

“To them this is a big game,” Akers says of search dogs. “That’s their motivation. This is how we play.”

The Shawn Hornbeck Search and Rescue Team has been called out to help search for lost children, elderly people and even hunters. Some of their searches have been successful and others have not.

Pat Tuholske, who owns the farm where the groups trains, has been a part of the team from the beginning. She and her Labrador retriever, Fin, have known the highs and lows of searching for the missing, beginning with Shawn Hornbeck.

“When Shawn went missing, that was only 12 miles from my house,” says Tuholske. “My heart went out to his parents and it touched me that the missing child epidemic had landed in my backyard. I just couldn’t sit at home. I had to help.”

Tuholske recalls one of the team’s successes last fall when a hunter went missing near Leasburg. Team members spent nearly 24 hours searching for him including a difficult and dangerous night search. At one point in the middle of the night Tuholske fell and injured her shoulder.

Craig Akers (left in picture) and a volunteer “missing person” praise Aker’s dog, Trax, for successfully finding his man. Akers, the step-father of Shawn Hornbeck, is the founder and director of the canine search and rescue team named for his son who disappeared from rural Washington County in 2002

The team eventually found the man, who suffered a brain aneurism and couldn’t walk. He had spent two nights incapacitated and lying in the woods but was alive when the team found him.

“Finding him alive made all the training and hard work worth it,” says Tuholske. “It’s a very rewarding experience when you reunite someone who’s been lost with their family. You feel like you’ve done your little bitty part in the world.”

The team still searches for Shawn and follows up leads with the FBI, which continues to investigate his disappearance, but Akers finds it difficult not knowing what happened to his stepson. Akers says it helps that good has come from his family’s tragedy.

“Sometimes it’s bittersweet because my son is still missing and I can’t find him no matter how hard I try,” says Akers.

“But talking to other parents of missing children and the fact that we get involved and do the searches and put their children on our Web site and produce fliers and distribute them, that really gives them more hope than they had before we arrived.”

More information about the search and rescue team is available at


Searching for Shawn

Shawn Hornbeck disappeared on Oct. 6, 2002 while riding his bike near his home near Richwoods in rural Washington County. Despite thousands of hours of work by local law enforcement agencies, volunteers and the FBI, no trace has ever been found of the then 11-year-old boy.

A searcher works a bloodhound during the recent training exercise of the Shawn Hornbeck Search and Rescue team, a group formed in response to Shawn's disappearance.

Refusing to give up, Shawn’s parents, Pamela and Craig Akers, organized volunteers to continue the search. Many of those volunteers eventually became the Shawn Hornbeck Search and Rescue team, which is dedicated to help find missing children.

Now organized as a nonprofit foundation, the group not only conducts searches to help find missing people, it also has a mission to educate the world about the dark, frightening world of missing children, like Shawn.

Using the Web site, the foundation offers constantly updated information about missing children. The foundation also maintains a command post in Richwoods where people with informatin about missing children can call a toll-free number 24 hours a day. The information is then forwarded to the appropriate law enforcement agency.

Foundation volunteers also speak to groups about the dangers of child abduction and how to protect your kids. And the group offers a program called MyID4Life where foundation volunteers collect digital fingerprints and photographs as well as DNA samples which are packaged with a CD containing the digital information and given to the child’s parents.

The foundation has also begun a program to place benches featuring pictures of missing children in front of grocery stores throughout the Midwest.

“We’re trying to give these parents some hope,” says Craig Akers, the foundation’s director.

For more information about the Shawn Hornbeck Foundation visit the Web site Information about missing children can be called into the foundation’s command center toll free 24 hours a day at 1-866-400-5353.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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