Jen­nifer Kushi has a Celtic in­fin­ity knot tat­too that runs from her an­kle to her hip, where it meets a tat­too of yel­low rays shin­ing over a tur­bu­lent black ocean. This em­blem matches that of an embroidered patch on the black har­ness of her dog Co­coa, a sweet 2-year-old Rot­tweiler. It is the logo of Maui Search and Res­cue, for which Co­coa is one of two dogs trained to de­tect hu­man re­mains.

Co­coa, who has the typ­i­cal brown mark­ings and docked tail of her breed, is both Kushi’s pet and her part­ner in searches for miss­ing per­sons. The two are prac­ti­cally in­sep­a­ra­ble, aside from the hours Kushi works as a nurse in ob­stet­rics and gyne­col­ogy or ur­gent care for Maui Med­i­cal Group. At night, Co­coa sleeps in a ken­nel, its door open, in Kushi’s room. Her four chil­dren, ages 2, 5, 6, and 8, adore the dog. “She is ac­tu­ally one of the big­gest ba­bies in the fam­ily,” Kushi says. In her spare time, Kushi may take Co­coa to Polipoli State Recre­ation Area, a cool forested space where the pair train for searches, or to meet­ings with Maui Search and Res­cue, of which the 36-year-old is vice pres­i­dent. This all-vol­un­teer or­ga­ni­za­tion con­sists of 50 to 80 mem­bers, with 15 to 20 who ac­tively par­tic­i­pate, as well as a hand­ful of search and res­cue dogs.

“I’ve al­ways wanted a Rot­tweiler be­cause of their tem­per­a­ments,” says Kushi, who got Co­coa in Fe­bru­ary 2013 when she was roughly 2 months old. “I know that they’re smart.” Co­coa was the runt of the lit­ter, picked on by her sib­lings but ea­ger for love and at­ten­tion. In the dog train­ing classes that Kushi sent her to that sum­mer, Co­coa learned com­mon tasks such as heel­ing, as well as the less com­mon one of pick­ing up scents. Co­coa was a nat­u­ral.

In Fe­bru­ary 2014, Kushi was watch­ing the news when she learned that a loosely formed group (which would even­tu­ally be­come Maui Search and Res­cue) was search­ing for miss­ing preg­nant woman Carly “Charli” Scott, and was re­cruit­ing vol­un­teers with med­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence. Kushi de­cided to pitch in. Af­ter wit­ness­ing the de­spair and ex­haus­tion of friends and fam­ily head­ing the search, she re­called the sto­ries a for­mer Maui pathol­o­gist she had worked with told her re­gard­ing Fema-cer­ti­fied dogs that had been brought from the main­land to as­sist in searches. What they needed, she re­al­ized, was such a dog, which could cover as much ground as 50 hu­man searchers.

Co­coa was a good fit for that type of task—de­sired traits in­clude scent­ing ca­pa­bil­ity, in­tel­li­gence, a strong play drive, and phys­i­cal stamina—so, af­ter re­search­ing proper train­ing pro­ce­dures ex­ten­sively on­line, Kushi be­gan train­ing her as a ca­daver dog, which de­tects and tracks the scent of de­cay­ing hu­man re­mains. (Maui Search and Res­cue also uti­lizes an air-scent dog, which has a brief win­dow of time to de­tect the scent of a live per­son.) They train in ru­ral lo­ca­tions, where Kushi hides ver­te­brae and pla­cen­tas in var­i­ous states of de­cay for Co­coa to de­tect and lo­cate. The Rot­tweiler has de­vel­oped her own way to sig­nify when she has found some­thing, tap­ping the spot be­fore she sits be­side it. She has also been trained to scent hu­man blood, so that she can help find in­jured per­sons.

On July 4, 2015, Kushi, Co­coa, Maui Search and Res­cue pres­i­dent Adam Gaines, and air-scent dog Mia boarded a plane for O‘ahu to aid in the search for Justin Clark, a hiker who had been miss­ing for nearly four days, af­ter be­ing con­tacted by his fam­ily. De­spite it be­ing the Rot­tweiler’s first ever flight, the large dog calmly set­tled un­der the seats in front of Kushi, not mind­ing the fid­gety tod­dler above her head or the cry­ing baby nearby. By the time they landed, fire­fight­ers had found Clark, so Kushi and Gaines took the op­por­tu­nity to bring the depart­ment piz­zas in­stead—one of the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s pri­or­i­ties is to cre­ate bet­ter re­la­tion­ships with such agen­cies, so that they will rec­om­mend that fam­i­lies con­tact Maui Search and Res­cue as soon as they think some­one is miss­ing. “We want the call within one or two hours, es­pe­cially with an air-scent dog,” Kushi says. “The longer you wait, the more the scent grows cold.”

Maui Search and Res­cue has par­tic­i­pated in ap­prox­i­mately 14 searches on Maui, O‘ahu, and Big Is­land, six of which have re­sulted in rel­e­vant finds. To fur­ther ex­pand their ca­pa­bil­i­ties and cred­i­bil­ity, the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s ca­nine­han­dler teams are headed to Cal­i­for­nia in April to un­dergo FEMA cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, which will teach and test them on search and res­cue tac­tics and skills to uti­lize af­ter dis­as­ters. Then, they’ll learn to de­scend cliff faces with Maui Rap­pel to fur­ther ex­pand their range of search.

Since Clark’s res­cue, Kushi and Co­coa have re­turned to O‘ahu sev­eral times to con­tinue search­ing for 16-year-old Noah Montemayor, who van­ished from his Hawai‘i Kai home, and 17-year-old Daylenn “Moke” Pua, who went miss­ing while hik­ing the treach­er­ous Stair­way to Heaven trail. Nei­ther has been found, but Maui Search and Res­cue con­tin­ues to stay in touch with the fam­i­lies.

Of her own chil­dren, Kushi says, “They know what [Co­coa] does, that she’s not nec­es­sar­ily look­ing for some­body that’s alive. … They un­der­stand that ev­ery­body does need to come home.”

Jen­nifer Kushi and her Rot­tweiler, Co­coa, are both owner and pet and a ca­nine-han­dler team with Maui Search and Res­cue.

“I’ve al­ways wanted a Rot­tweiler be­cause of their tem­per­a­ments. I know that they’re smart,” says Jen­nifer Kushi,

shown here with her dog, Co­coa, who she trained to de­tect the scent of hu­man re­mains.

Two-year-old Rot­tweiler Co­coa has all the de­sired traits of a search and res­cue dog, in­clud­ing

scent­ing ca­pa­bil­ity, in­tel­li­gence, a strong play drive, and phys­i­cal stamina.

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