Casandra Ulbrich’s other passion: training search and rescue dogs

July 31, 2023

UM-Dearborn’s Vice Chancellor for Institutional Advancement is at the ready should police need her and her dogs to find a missing person.

Vice Chancellor for Institutional Advancement Casandra Ulbrich trains her search and rescue dog Gryphon, a German shepherd.
Vice Chancellor for Institutional Advancement Casandra Ulbrich trains with her dog Gryphon. Ulbrich runs a nonprofit called Wolverine State Search and Recovery, which provides canine search and rescue services to law enforcement agencies.

Dogs can be one of a police force's most potent tools in a missing person situation, whether the objective is to locate a survivor or human remains. But it may surprise you to learn that most police departments don't typically have their own search and rescue canines. Instead, they rely on private citizens or organizations who train and handle dogs for very specific purposes. There are, for example, dogs that focus on finding human remains, and trailing dogs, which can follow the scent of a specific person, even if the trail is days old. It may also surprise you to learn that Casandra Ulbrich, who you know as UM-Dearborn's Vice Chancellor for Institutional Advancement, is one of the go-to rescue and recovery dog trainers and handlers for law enforcement agencies in Michigan. She got into this work by accident, when she learned about it during the search for her first German Shepherd, Jaxon. “The person who helped me locate the breeder did search and rescue, and I thought this was really cool, so I decided to get him tested,” Ulbrich remembers. Jaxon was a natural, and soon after, he was trained and certified as a human remains detection dog. Ulbrich was hooked.

Ulbrich has been doing this work now for 15 years, and in 2017, started her own nonprofit organization, Wolverine State Search and Recovery, which provides search and rescue services to law enforcement agencies throughout the state. It’s a huge part of her life, but it’s also something she says she has to “remind myself not to talk about with people,” at least not with just anyone. For the curious, a conversation about how this all works can quickly lead one into some interesting territory. Training human remains detection dogs, for example, one of Ulbrich’s specialties, means that she has to expose dogs to actual human remains, which, of course, necessitates acquiring and storing “HR.” In a freezer at Ulbrich’s home, right now, you’d find human bone, teeth, cremains, blood, washcloths that were lying underneath a dead body for the day and placenta. Placenta is one of the easier things to come by, because that’s a part of the body hospitals will typically send someone home with after giving birth no questions asked, after which the person is free to donate it. Teeth aren’t a problem either: One of Ulbrich’s teammates at WSSR works at a dentist office. “But the big stuff” — something like an arm or a leg — “that’s pretty hard to come by,” Ulbrich says. Right now she’s trying to work with a local mortuary science program to see if they’d donate body parts during training days, after which they’d be promptly returned. 

All of this work is possible, of course, because dogs have an incredibly powerful sense of smell. German Shepherds, which have some of the most sensitive noses in the dog world, have more than 200 million scent receptors, giving them an olfactory sense that’s 6,000 times more powerful than ours. This enables them to accomplish all kinds of superheroic smell-based tasks. They can root through an entire garbage truck and zero in on a single item. They can distinguish between regular ash and human cremains. If a person gets lost in the woods, exposing a trailing dog to an article of the person’s clothing is all a trained dog needs to start following the scent for miles, even in harsh weather and days after the person went missing. But search and rescue requires more than just a great canine nose. Ulbrich says the handler is just as crucial, because they have to be able to recognize subtle body language and behavior changes in the dog, which signal what the dog is thinking. “In a trailing situation, for example, something as subtle as a head turn can be really significant,” Ulbrich explains. “If your dog does a head turn then keeps going straight, you have to make a mental note of that because it could indicate that’s where they were supposed to turn. In an open area, scent moves, so if the dog reaches a dead end, it’s up to you to help get them back on track.” Ulbrich says it takes a long time before a handler really understands their dog. Some dogs can be hard to read, while others, like her star trailing dog, Gryphon, have an easy tell. “Gryphon has this big floofy tail that tells me everything I need to know,” she says. 

If you’re wondering how Ulbrich fits all this into her already demanding schedule at the university, it can definitely be tricky, given that search and rescues are often emergency situations. If a person is suspected to be deceased, she says she can typically schedule that work for Gryphon a few days in advance. But if she gets a call from law enforcement for, say, a person with dementia who’s gone missing, it means she has to drop what she’s doing, if possible, and head out into the field. “I’m really lucky that every place I’ve ever worked has been supportive,” Ulbrich says. “There have definitely been a few times when I’ve texted Chancellor Grasso, and I’m, like, ‘Hey, Domenico, Gryphon’s got a job, I gotta go.’ And he’s always, like, ‘Good luck, be safe.’” 


We were so inspired by Casandra Ulbrich’s story that we’re thinking about starting a series on UM-Dearborn faculty and staff who do something super interesting in their lives outside the university. Do you know someone who fits that description? Is that you? If so, drop us a line at [email protected]. Story by Lou Blouin.