By Katy Savage
After Donald Gurney, Jr. went missing last week, hundreds of people, police rescue groups and a team of search dogs united to find him.
Gurney, 65, who has Alzheimer’s, went missing around midnight Monday, June 13 on Gurney Road in Springfield. Vermont State Police said his truck was left on the side of the road and he likely wandered off.
His family drove the roads Monday night looking for him. The next day, teams of 50-60 people mobilized on the ground to search for Gurney from 8 a.m. to sundown while a helicopter from the Vermont National Guard flew overhead.
Gurney was finally found mid-afternoon June 16 in Cavendish, about 1.5 miles from where he lives, thanks to Neeko, a 2 1/2-year-old Belgian Malinois from New England K-9 Search and Rescue.
Neeko searched for Guney off-leash that day and disappeared from sight until he suddenly ran back to his handler Doreen Michalak and jumped on her chest, indicating he found someone.
Michalak told the dog, “show me.” And then Neeko brought her to Gurney.
Gurney was lying down in a thick, wooded area near Knapp Pond Road in Cavendish. He was “very dehydrated but alert,” said Donna Larson, a founding member of New England K-9.
The dog and the lost man became inseparable. Larson said Neeko laid beside Gurney and rested his head on Gurney’s lap, seemingly keeping him warm. Gurney was Neeko’s first find since becoming a working dog.
“This is typical of search dogs,” Larson said. “They take possession of the subject,” letting others know, “This is my find.”
The rescuers guessed Gurney traveled back roads and portions of the VAST trail, likely walking 3.5 miles in total.
Neeko and his handler stayed with Gurney until he was carried out of the woods in a UTV. Neeko closely followed Gurney all the way.
“Donny was his,” Larson said.
Larson said searching for someone with Alzheimer’s is “challenging because there’s no rhyme or reason to what they do. They would just keep going.”
Gurney’s size and physical condition were also a factor. “He’s physically much more capable than an 85 year old would be, he could go further and through some tough terrain,” Larson said.
Eight dogs covered about 1,200 acres over three days and went a total of 23 miles on roadways and trails. Each dog traveled about 80 acres a day.
“We’re systematically covering it,” Larson said. “The dog has to be relentless and keep going and going and going.”
Larson said the dogs will find anyone in the area but they are skilled enough to ignore hikers, hunters and other rescue teams. Larson said the dogs sense the fear and adrenaline of the missing person.
“They do strictly air scent, not tracking,” Larson said. “We just say ‘search’ and they will keep going.”
The dogs work in Vermont and New Hampshire and help with missing person cases, human remains detection, criminal cases and suicides.
Dozens of organizations collaborated on the search effort and the impact was so massive, rescue personnel said it was unique.
“It was pretty amazing to see how the community came together,” said Cavendish Fire Chief Rebecca Noreau.
The community and local businesses donated enough food to feed everybody breakfast, lunch and dinner for three days with trail bars, yogurt with fruit and granola, sandwiches, homemade muffins, cookies, Gatorade, water, lasagna and pizza.
“I’ve never seen such generosity and volunteer spirit as the folks in your town displayed during this search. You inspire me!” Dave Coppock of Killington Search and Rescue wrote on Facebook.
Larson echoed those sentiments. “I’ve been doing this since 1981. I have never seen like the community of Cavendish,” she said. “It was amazing.”
The community even brought treats for the dogs.
“I’ve never seen that, ever,” Larson said.
Gurney was transported and released from Springfield Hospital.
“He was really not cognizant of all that had occurred,” said Deborah Gurney, his sister-in-law. But, she said Gurney has a sense of humor. When asked where he was, Gurney said he was “out for a walk.”
Deborah asked if he was scared. “He said I knew I would be OK,” Deborah said.
Deborah showed Gurney the photo of Neeko. To the surprise of the rescue teams, Gurney asked to meet Neeko again.
“He feels like he owes a huge thank you to Neeko and he really wants to be able to do that,” Deborah said. “I have to believe Neeko will always remember Donny.”
After Gurney was found, the rescue teams gathered for one last meal. “We already are big believers in the ability of dogs,” said Deborah. “We felt like it was a matter of time letting the dogs do their business.”