Trailblazing: Blind Paralympian and her guide dog find missing woman on Vancouver Island

Click to play video: 'Blind Paralympian and guide dog locate missing senior'
Blind Paralympian and guide dog locate missing senior
WATCH: An amazing story from Vancouver Island where a blind Paralympian - and her specially trained golden retriever Lucy - were able to track down a missing person with dementia. – May 30, 2023

Jessica Tuomela has crossed finish lines, won gold for Canada and travelled the world, but one of her most vivid memories will always be one close to home in Saanich, B.C.

The blind Paralympian, who relies on her guide dog Lucy, got an urgent text from a neighbour nearly two weeks ago stating that an aging family member who suffers from memory loss had gone out for a walk and not returned home. The friend asked Tuomela if she and her golden retriever could hit the trails.

Scent trailing is a search and rescue method that relies on a dog’s nose to find someone rather than visual cues observed by the handler, such as footprints. It’s a skill Tuomela and Lucy had worked on together, but hoped they would never have to use.

“It took us over three kilometres and just over 40 minutes,” Tuomela recalled. “It was incredible when I realized we were doing a rescue, not a recovery.”

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The neighbours had purchased a special kit for storing their relative’s scent. Lucy picked it up quickly and took off on a run, which Tuomela — an elite athlete — was able to keep up with.

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She said a “wonderful” bystander tagged along for as long as possible, warning her of obstacles in their path. Eventually, she said Lucy led her onto the sand and into the water by Elk Lake, where she heard the missing person’s voice, speaking to the dog.

“Within seconds, my backup handler caught up and confirmed that this is who we were looking for. I just was really trying to remain calm … After she had been reunited with her family, I was definitely probably shaking for about 45 minutes. It was pretty incredible.”

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Special graduation day for Vancouver woman and her guide dog

Shortly afterward, in Tallahassee, Fla., a party took place.

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Paul Coley, a former FBI agent and co-founder of Scent Evidence K9, trained Tuomela and Lucy on scent trailing and how to use the scent kits, which contain a tamper-proof jar and gauze pad. He said Tuomela called him before the rescue mission began and afterward, “elated” with the outcome.

Upon hearing the news, he and his wife celebrated.

“I get chills every time we think about it. We work with so many handlers across the world,” he told Global News. “Talk about getting paid exorbitant amounts — that’s what it is for us.

“Just a few weeks before that we found a missing four-year-old in the swamps in Florida. Everything we put into this company is worth that.”

Coley said he and his wife created Scent Evidence K9 because they felt improvements were needed in the way agencies search for missing people.

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The case of the neighbour’s relative was Tuomela’s second rescue with Lucy, and the 450th rescue on record for the Tallahassee-based company.

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Tuomela said she’s been trying to get the word out for about a year that she and her guide dog have these skills and “we’re available to help people.”

“I would rather us be called out and not needed, or you buy a scent preservation kit and never need it if it happens,” she said. “It’s not really something we want to think about, but if there’s a way to keep family members safe and be proactive, then let’s do it.”

Tuomela runs True North Canine and said she hopes to get more dogs trained on scent trailing. She is also a Paralympic swimmer, a world triathlete, and a massage therapist with a master’s degree in social work.

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