A pooch named Eli is being trained as a rescue dog, and the first person he’s helping is his trainer.

Tracy Tillman works at a shelter operated for nearly 30 years by the Humane Society of the Branson Tri-Lakes Area. The shelter takes in about 2,000 dogs and cats each year, and through the persistent efforts of volunteers, they are able to place more than half of those animals, said board member Tricia Krause.

Last fall, Tillman went to a home where a German shepherd had a litter of 10 mixed-breed puppies. The shelter was full at the time, but volunteers were able to place three of the puppies — including Eli.

“He came right up and played with me,” Tillman said. “I had to pick him.”

The rest of the pups eventually had to be put down, Tillman said.

Now, with the help of Strafford animal trainer Gary LaFollette, Eli is being trained for search-and-rescue as well as detecting explosives.

“He could have been destroyed, but instead, he’s going to be saving lives,” Tillman said.

For Tillman, working with Eli has been “humbling,” he said. “Learning to train him has given me a new interest in training myself.”

Tillman recently completed his high school general equivalency degree.

It’s a requirement to become a certified animal control officer, which is Tillman’s goal, he said.

Providing an animal control officer to work with Stone County law enforcement is among the Humane Society’s future goals, Krause said.

Shelter manager Sandi Rakestraw is certified in animal control, and also has inspired Tillman.

Training dogs for law enforcement has become a booming business, especially following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Gary LaFollette. He and his wife, Tonya, own the LaFollette Training Canine Center in Strafford.

Over the past nine years, he’s trained about 200 dogs for law enforcement agencies or private companies. The greatest demand is for dogs to detect narcotics and explosives. Such a dog can sell for as much as $4,500, he said.

He also trains those who will handle the dogs, and has traveled to several states and other countries. While his wife was dealing with the aftermath of this winter’s ice storm, he was in Haiti, teaching handlers there to work with a dog he trained.

LaFollette, who grew up in Strafford, uses his own two dogs to do drug searches in area schools, he said.

He trains a variety of dogs, and many come from shelters, he said.

“Some of the mixed breeds have been really funny looking dogs, but they worked real well,” LaFollette said.

There currently are about 60 dogs and puppies plus 36 cats and kittens at the Humane Society of the Branson Tri-Lakes Area shelter a mile east of Reeds Spring.

Animals brought to the center are kept in isolation for five days and also receive inoculations, Tillman said.

They are licensed by the USDA to keep a total of 100 animals.

The latest program the shelter started to control pet population is the Spay-Neuter Fund. Supported by fund-raisers and donations, the program provides a $25 voucher to people who receive financial aid to have their pets neutered.

Veterinarians in Branson, Kirbyville, Reeds Spring, Branson West and Crane accept the vouchers, Krause said.

It was in 1978 that a group of neighbors got together to find homes for a growing number of stray animals. After 10 years of fund raising, the shelter opened and was affiliated with the National Humane Society in 1995.