Source: CBC (Extract)
Posted: June 24, 2023

A triathlete and paralympian originally from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. is now training dogs to help find missing people.

Many people in northern Ontario know Jessica Tuomela for her silver medal in Sydney, as a swimmer, and later as a triathlete competing on the world stage. Now she’s also the founder and head trainer of True North Canine.

Tuomela has been blind since the age of three due to an eye cancer called retinoblastoma. She has been around guide dogs all her life, and during the pandemic she learned about discriminant scent trailing.

“Discriminant scent trailing is a form of searching and the dog is very much in the driver’s seat, which reminded me of using a guide dog,” Tuomela said.

“Which is why I thought I could do it.”

Tuomela now lives in Victoria, where she continues to train as a triathlete, with hopes of competing at the Paralympics in Paris next year, and trains search and rescue dogs.

She connected with Paul Coley, from Scent Evidence K9 in Florida, who previously worked for the FBI as a forensic canine operations specialist.

Coley trained her first dog, Lucy, and uses what he calls scent preservation kits to capture and preserve the scent of someone at risk of going missing, such as an elderly person with dementia.

“It’s a jar,” Tuomela said.

“Once you put the scent sample inside the jar and you close the lid, if it’s stored properly, the scent stays in there uncontaminated for up to 10 years.”

Missing person found

Tuomela said she has only sold a small number of scent preservation kits so far, but one already helped her find a missing person.

She had a booth at an expo and a customer bought a kit for their 89-year-old family member, who often goes for walks and lives with memory loss.

“And I get a text message and it says, ‘Jess, are you home? We need Lucy,'” Tuomela said.

“So she went for a walk, which her family knew she was going to do, but she’d been gone for two hours and it was during a heat wave that we had.”

Her dog Lucy was able to hone in on the person thanks to their scent in the preservation kit.

They knew she had gone missing along a trail that loops around a lake.

Tuomela said it took around 40 minutes for Lucy to find her.

“She was in the water, probably just past her knees,” she said.

Tuomela credits preserving the woman’s scent for being able to find her before she could get hurt.

During her search, a bystander also helped her avoid obstacles. Tuomela has two backup handlers to help her out, but they were both away on vacation that day.

Now, Tumoela says she wants to get scent trailing dogs in other communities and encourage people to use scent preservation kits.

“I really believe that this saves lives,” she said.