A rescued shelter bloodhound now rescues people.
It’s always harrowing when a person goes missing. But when the missing person is a child with autism – a nonverbal child who will not respond to repeated calls – it can be disastrous.
This happened not so long ago to a 15-year-old boy in Mississippi, and his family was predictably frantic. Police had been searching the woods near his house without success. After darkness fell and the situation looked bleak, they decided to call in a search worker with special skills: Madalyn Grace, a diligent bloodhound with impossibly long ears and a nose like a divining rod.
“After receiving a scent article – a pillowcase – I commanded Maddy, and we began to search,” says Angela Fletcher, 45, Maddy’s handler. “She led me from the house, through the woods and around a field to a small pond. There he sat, right beside the water.
“I did not engage in conversation and just let him pet Maddy. The entire walk back he just held onto the leash and would occasionally reach down and pat her on the head.”
Rescues like this one have become increasingly commonplace for Maddy and Fletcher since they performed their first mission together in July 2012. In that time, they’ve rescued missing children. They’ve rescued missing teens. They’ve rescued missing Alzheimer’s patients and, with their keen tracking skills, they’ve even helped solve murders. None of this would have been possible, however, if Maddy hadn’t been rescued herself.
Back in 2011, Maddy was emaciated, sick, wounded and alone. She had a bullet in her left hip and was suffering from kidney failure. While female bloodhounds usually weigh at least 80 pounds, she weighed just 26 pounds when deer hunters found her in Alabama and brought her to the closest animal shelter.
Volunteers from the national group American Black & Tan Coonhound Rescue heard about Maddy’s plight and arranged for her to receive care and shelter in a foster home in Orlando, Florida. Right around that time, Fletcher – who lives with her husband Mike in Southaven, Mississippi, and works full time at Rhodes College – was doing “mantracking” search work as a volunteer and thinking, “Wouldn’t this be so much easier with a dog?” She started looking online for a bloodhound, and her search eventually led her to the rescue group’s website. There she saw a photo of a frail little dog with thin fur, a disheveled look and a spark in her eyes.
I can’t put into words what it was, but I immediately thought, ‘That’s her.’ I just knew.
Fletcher faced a logistical hurdle, though: how to get Maddy from Orlando to Mississippi? Enter Pilots N Paws®. A partner of Subaru, the South Carolina-based organization has transported nearly 100,000 dogs, cats and other animals to safety by connecting shelters and animal rescue groups with pilots and plane owners all over the United States. When longtime volunteer pilot Jeff Bennett heard about Maddy, he agreed to fly her to Mississippi on his own dime.
“These pilots love knowing that they really are making a difference by flying the animals and helping them,” says Debi Boies, founder of Pilots N Paws. “It touches their hearts, and sometimes they adopt the animals themselves.”
Fletcher said Maddy seemed like a “long-lost child” from the moment they met in person in December 2011, and their bond has grown closer with each passing year and each rescue mission. Maddy took to search work with ease – so much so that the first trainer who evaluated her days after her adoption figured she must be a search-and-rescue veteran.
Photo: Courtesy of Angela Fletcher.
“He said she was like nothing he’d ever seen,” says Fletcher. “She’s a natural.”
As a team, Fletcher and Maddy are qualified to do tracking and trailing work in both urban and wilderness settings, and they’ve earned challenging certifications from FEMA, the North American Police Work Dog Association and other agencies. Fletcher says they have completed about 85 missions together with a 92 percent success rate.
“It can be intimidating sometimes to walk up to law-enforcement officials with their $10,000 dogs or their $15,000 dogs, and here I am with my little $250 dog,” says Fletcher. “It’s not the price tag that matters, though. It’s the heart and drive of the dog and the heart and work of the handler. The more I can get that out there, the more dogs might get rescued from shelters.”
In addition to search-and-rescue work, Maddy and Fletcher also do therapy work together. Their specialties: young people with disabilities and young people who have witnessed traumatic events.
“These are children who have experienced violence in the home or who have seen stabbings, drownings or worse,” says Fletcher. “I’ll tell them, ‘Maddy has these long, long ears so she can listen to your stories.’ Then I hold her ear out … and they talk.”
Pilots N Paws founder Boies is also executive vice president of the Pet Philanthropy Circle, whose annual Pet Hero Awards are sponsored by Subaru. She says it was a special thrill to present Maddy with the Pet Hero Award in 2014.
Debi Boies (left), executive vice president of the Pet Philanthropy Circle, presents Angela Fletcher and her dog, Madalyn Grace, with the Pet Hero Award for 2014. Photo credit: Richard Lewis.
“What Maddy and Angela have done is just amazing,” says Boies. “To find someone who’s lost in the wilderness, or to give peace to someone’s family – that is quite a gift.”
Why does Fletcher, despite her full-time job, consistently devote at least 60 volunteer hours a month to rescue, therapy and training work with Maddy? In short, it’s because she knows what it’s like to need rescuing.
“I had a very traumatic childhood,” she says. “My parents were physically violent and my dad was a drug addict. … I know what it’s like to be left alone and for it to be cold and for it to be dark. In a sense, rescuing dogs helps me rescue myself, and I probably will do that forever.”