This past week I was invited to attend a special demonstration by the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation. I have to say, these dogs are incredible. There are so many things I didn’t know about how these dogs are acquired, trained and maintain their focus. The demonstration showed how solid the dogs are in their basic training, how they teach them to find a hidden person, how they work with them to teach them how to master more difficult terrain and the absolute joy these dogs seem to have when they’re “working”.
I hope you enjoy some of the many photos I took and the 15 things that I learned:
- National Search Dog Foundation dogs are adopted from shelters and rescues nationwide. Often the dogs that are chosen are ones that have been turned in because they keep escaping from their yards. It shows they already are using their brain for how to get around barriers – important for a dog searching through rubble. One such dog was Huck who, even after he got into their program continued to amaze them. Once he got into training, the trainers started to think they were going crazy because he would end up in kennels other than the ones that they placed him in. They soon learned that Huck could open gates, undo latches and climb fences. He wouldn’t necessarily go anywhere, just head out to visit other dogs in other kennels and often even put himself back in his own kennel when he was done.
- It takes a year of intensive training for both handler and dog before they are ready to take their FEMA certification tests. I got the impression from the handlers in the demonstration that the preparation for the tests was actually more stressful than any of the rescue work they actually do.
- The dogs in the program live with their handler 24/7 but are trained to respond to any handler.
- The types of dogs that most often are chosen for Search and Rescue work include Labs, Goldens, Border Collies and mixes of these breeds. These are working dogs that typically have the right level of energy and drive for this sort of work. “We are looking for workaholic dogs with an intense toy drive. These dogs are usually very driven and a bit ‘crazy’, which does not usually make for a good pet dog. Many families cannot handle these dogs and many of them end up in shelters” (Jan Peterson – Search Dog Foundation canine recruiter)
- When the dogs are learning how to find people in the rubble, the hidden “victim” is the one who has the toys and treats so that the dogs learn that the hidden person is the most fun person to find. The handlers and other search team members out in the open typically make themselves as “boring” as possible so that the only exciting person is the one far underneath the rubble.
- All training done is positive reinforcement training. Trust me, I saw these dogs and they were having an absolute blast doing their job. No one had to force them to climb and search.
- The dogs are trained to ignore smells from clothing, food and deceased victims. Their only job is to find survivors.
- When the dog finds the hidden person, they begin a very distinct bark to let their handler know that they’ve found someone. Some dogs had a conversational bark going the whole time they were searching, but the bark got decidedly more pronounced when they knew that they found a person.
- Search and Rescue dogs generally work 8-10 years before retiring and becoming a pet.
- Sometimes a dog and handler are called to duty on only 2 hours notice and often have to take circuitous routes to get to a damaged area.
- There are currently 76 SDF trained search teams located in California, Florida, Oklahoma, Nebraska, New York, Texas and Utah.
- Dogs are provided at no cost to the Fire Departments they serve with.
- If a dog, for any reason, does not make it through the training to become a search and rescue dog, the dog does not end up back in the shelter. SDF makes a Lifetime Care Commitment to that dog and will often work to find alternate career paths that might fit that particular dog’s skill set better.
- It costs up to $15,000 to create one search team. These moneys are raised through grants, such as the ones that the PETCO Foundation provides and private funding from individuals and companies.
- Search dogs do not wear the search in the vests you often see in promotional photos during an active search as they don’t want to have anything that will get hung up in the debris and slow the dog down from their life-saving mission.
“Watching these once cast-off dogs that, with training, have become life-saving tools fills me with unmitigated pride and a deep humility for this species that can and does do so much for humankind” – Pluis Davern – National Disaster Search Dog Foundation