Thunder shot through thick briers, trampling branches and weeds, finding her way along a scent-laden trail. Seconds later, the black Labrador returned to her handler, Bob Session, then darted back to her discovery.
Her discovery of the body of 25-year-old John Wayne Landon of Laurel ended an 11-day search for Mr. Landon, who had been reported missing March 6. Mr. Landon had been beaten to death.
Dennis Donald Ingram, 33, also of Laurel, was charged with murder in the death of Mr. Landon, allegedly during a drinking spree in the woods. Mr. Ingram is being held at the Howard County Detention Center.
Mr. Session and Thunder are part of the Rockville-based Mid-Atlantic DOGS (Dogs Organized for Ground Searches). Formed in January 1990, the volunteer search-dog team has helped authorities find clues or trapped, lost or missing people -- dead or alive -- in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.
The group's 20 members, most of them single, volunteer to participate in their free time, but take off from their jobs if necessary. Mr. Session says a desire to help troubled people or their families drives members to invest their own time and energy.
"We try to help police," said Mr. Session, 48, a Chevy Chase real estate appraiser who dispatches the group's search teams. "If it can assist them in bringing about justice, we've accomplished something."
DOGS participates in 30 to 40 searches a year, with at least two volunteers and their animals working each incident. Searches can take as little as an hour or last for days, depending on the terrain and the freshness of a trail.
Not every case ends with a tragic discovery, and members say working with the dogs is rewarding.
"It's kind of enjoyable in a way. I like the outdoors, and I find an excuse to train my dog in the woods while doing something positive," says Al Rossi, 35, a heating and air conditioning technician and volunteer firefighter from Rockville.
Mr. Rossi's Rottweiler, Silke, found the body of 15-year-old Tara Gladden in a culvert under Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia in August(. Howard County police brought in the group after a monthlong investigation of the girl's disappearance.
"They're an invaluable resource," said Howard Police Sgt. Louis D'Antuono, who is leading the investigation of the girl's slaying. "Their help accelerates things drastically for us. They just might be better with search and rescue than the average police officer."
The dogs are trained at least one full day a week, practicing how to find scented items or club members -- who may hide under leaves or logs -- and working with their handlers along obstacle courses.
The dogs most often are used to locate people, but also have been brought in to search for weapons used in armed robberies or any other items sought by police.
Dressed in brown khaki shirts and dark green pants, Mr. Session and the other canine specialists use topographic maps and compasses to assist them in searches. DOGS members train extensively in land navigation, first aid and outdoor survival.
The dogs communicate through a "find, refind" technique, locating the person or item being sought, then running back to lead their handler to the site.
Handlers say that despite the grisly end to many searches, controlling their own emotions is essential.
"We're very saddened by some situations, but we have to be excited for the dogs' sake," Mr. Session said. "If not, they're not going to be eager to search in the future."
The dogs work for simple rewards from their handlers. Thunder's reward for her effort is four or five tosses of a small blue flying disk.
Mr. Session said some dogs are inappropriate for a search team because they may be too aggressive. The group's dogs -- a variety of breeds -- are all household pets until called upon.
"Cru loves it," said Lucy Baker, 42, of Kitty Hawk, N.C. "She can tell when I put on my boots she's going to go on a search. Dogs can tell when it's the real thing."
DOGS is usually called after police have failed in a search.
That was the case in January 1993 when Grayson County, Va., authorities were baffled by the monthlong disappearance of a man. Neighbors had found blood on the man's porch.
Authorities found marijuana growing in his barn and thought the former Washington resident might have been killed in a drug-related incident.
DOGS members took a six-hour trip to the southwest Virginia site and picked up the man's trail, which led to the nearby New River.
The dogs led rescue boat operators to an area in the river where divers discovered the man's body wrapped in a bed quilt, tied with rope and anchored with concrete blocks. Four rifles were found with him.
"They've done a fine job for us," said Grayson County Sheriff Herbert McKnight. "I don't think we would have found him, at least for a while."
Members pay their own expenses, including gas, meals and dog food and often lose wages when they take off from their jobs. Their cellular phones are bought with donations from the United Way and citizens.
"It costs me income," Mr. Session said. "But I assign my priority to this work."
Members can be summoned at all hours, said Mr. Session, who carries a pager used for emergency search requests. With their bags and equipment already packed, members can be ready in 10 minutes -- and the dogs are always ready.
Last May, when five children, ages 7 to 15, hiking at Old Rag Mountain in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park took a short cut and got lost, DOGS went to the rescue.
Brooke Holt, 63, a retired Rockville veterinarian, and two other members divided a wooded area and searched with park rangers. Dr. Holt's bloodhound, Polly, found the hungry and relieved group in little more than an hour.
Dr. Holt, who has volunteered in dog searches for 13 years, said she does because it's important to know the fate of a missing person, even if the news is bad.
"When you see community support, it's tremendously gratifying," Dr. Holt said. "It renews your faith in human nature."