In Dog He Trusts

Steve Stochaj '83 and, from left, rescue dogs Striking, Bumper and Splash take a break from winter training in Sunspot, N.M.

By professional standards alone, Steve Stochaj ’83 is an accomplished Franklin & Marshall alumnus. A tenured professor of electrical engineering at New Mexico State University (NMSU) in Las Cruces, Stochaj teaches and does research to develop satellites for space exploration, work that came out of his postgraduate fellowship at NASA’s Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt, Md.

But it is the professor’s volunteer work that makes him special, according to his sister, Loreli Stochaj ’85.

For the past 17 years, Steve Stochaj and his wife, Nancy Chanover, also an NMSU science professor, have trained their dogs to help lead search-and-rescue missions to find missing people throughout southern New Mexico. They devote five to 10 hours a week to training and volunteering.

The Stochaj family’s love of dogs goes back four decades. Growing up in By Elizabeth Berkeley Heights, N.J., the family owned several poodles over the years, all with the same name, Surry.

After the siblings left home for F&M, their parents “went through empty-house syndrome” and got a Labrador retriever they began training to be a guide dog for the blind, Steve Stochaj said. Visiting the dogs at home during holidays, Stochaj would travel with his parents to competitions and see firsthand that dogs could be much more than household pets.

A Lab Named Roxy

Though he did not know it at the time, those experiences set the foundation for Stochaj’s passion for working with and training rescue dogs.

After graduating from F&M, he earned his Ph.D. from the University of Maryland and joined NMSU in 1990. While at NMSU Stochaj met Chanover, who at the time was a graduate student in astronomy. They married in 1994, and after testing their house-pet readiness with a fish, they moved up to a yellow Labrador named Roxy.

“She had a huge amount of energy, and we were looking for anything to tire her out,” Stochaj said. So they started canine cross-training for Roxy. They learned about the sports of agility (running timed obstacle courses), obedience (an exercise of walking patterns with a trainer) and tracking (finding lost or hidden objects), as well as herding and duck retrieval. Roxy was so adept at these exercises that Stochaj and Chanover entered her in a series of competitions in New Mexico.

Soon after, through an article in their local Wallace newspaper, the couple discovered the Mesilla Valley Search and Rescue (MVSR) organization.

“They were having a garage sale at an elementary school as a fundraiser,” Stochaj said. “For a dollar you could hide in the empty lot and have the rescue dog find you.” A couple dollars later, they met the people on the canine team, and were encouraged to come by and see if Roxy had what it took to be mission-ready.

After nine rigorous months of training, Roxy became certified and became a fixture on MVSR missions.

Land of the Lost

The ultimate object of search and rescue is to find a missing person alive. “It may be a lost hiker, someone who got separated from a group during hunting, someone missing near a river and feared drowned,” Stochaj said.

Roxy was a natural. Over the years, she located a fallen hiker in New Mexico’s rugged Organ Mountains and a drowning victim along a riverbank. She also sniffed out the trail of a lost mother and her young daughter near Buck Mountain in the west-central part of the state. “That one was cool,” Stochaj recalled. “After we found them, the little girl wanted to go out to lunch with us at McDonald’s.”

When Roxy died (of natural causes at age 11), Stochaj adopted and trained a new rescue dog, a half Portuguese water dog and half border collie named Splash. Splash located two lost mountain hikers, tracked a man who trekked into the mountains without his needed medications and became lost, and found the body of a hiker who went missing in the Gila Wilderness. The couple had similar success with another dog, Phoebe, who located a missing autistic boy.

They recently trained a third dog, a border collie named Striking. Stochaj and Chanover estimate they and their dogs have been called out on about 100 missions over the years.

Teaching the Teachers

“I don’t think either of us realized how much of a time commitment it was,” Chanover said of the time they have spent outside of their “day jobs” adopting and training the dogs. “We have now trained several dogs, and each is very different in terms of how they learn, what motivates them, what they’re afraid of.”

It has been an educational process for two people whose work centers on educating.

And their passion runs in the family. Loreli Stochaj, who lives in Summit, N.J., volunteers with an organization that raises guide dogs for the blind. She remains close to—and impressed by—her older brother.

“Steve loves dogs, as you can tell by talking to him,” she said. “But he has taken this love a step further, in the time and effort he gives to search and rescue. They do this in addition to having ‘regular’ jobs. In my opinion, this is more important than money.”

Steve Stochaj finds his volunteer work rewarding, and enjoys the camaraderie among members of rescue teams. Furthermore, he said, “I’m kind of a compulsive teacher, whether students or dogs. I’m always interested in how they’re learning.” That curiosity was honed, he said, at F&M. “I like not just knowing an answer, but finding out how something works. It’s a basic sense of inquisitiveness.”

It’s a sense he seems to have passed on to his dogs. Recently, Striking competed for and won the job of dashing on to the football field at NMSU home games and retrieving football tees after kickoffs.

“He’s done a great job,” Stochaj said. “It’s a paid position, but we’ve arranged for (his earnings) to be donated to different groups in Las Cruces.”

 


Anatomy of a Rescue

A search-and-rescue mission for Steve Stochaj ’83 and his rescue dog typically begins with a phone call in the middle of the night.

“It’s not unusual to have to drive three or four hours, arriving at your searching destination by sunup,” Stochaj said. A group of three or four volunteers, accompanied by one rescue dog, then pool in one car and head to a rendezvous point. Once at their destination, they set to searching.

Human volunteers use demographic information of the missing person (age, gender, physical fitness level) to estimate the path the person might have taken. Dogs use their physical training—and their sense of smell—to find the missing.

“The dogs don’t wander too far away from you until they smell something,” Stochaj said. “Once they do, they come back and alert you—they might bark or do something with their paw—then Ping-Pong back and forth (between the volunteer and the subject) until you find the subject.”

The reality of this type of work is that about a fifth of subjects in Stochaj’s rescue region in New Mexico are not found alive. “The whole thing is pretty intense,” Stochaj said of finding bodies. “You’re happy you’ve accomplished what you set out to do. You’re very sad because the person is deceased. But, as far as the family goes, this is going to bring them some kind of closure.”

—Elizabeth Wallace


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3 Responses »

  1. This guy is so amazing. Glad that he has time to train his dog in order to help other people. I know he's busy with his professional job but I hope he'll continue this dog training program.

  2. Are all Labs applicable for Search and Rescue? Or is there some sort of assessment to know which dog is ready for this kind of task?

  3. Hi Steve and Nancy! Just thought I’d take my hat off to you guys. You’re the real heroes at those search and rescue missions. Spending so much time training dogs to sniff out life at calamity sites is admirable. May your tribe increase!

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