Search and rescue dogs prove an invaluable resource to emergency personnel
by Mark Zurlo
In the wake of disaster, firefighters, police officers, EMTs, and coast guard officers race to the scene to save lives. But humans aren't the only creatures that put themselves in harm's way to help others.
Search and rescue dogs have become an important component of rescue operations, often locating survivors and reaching them when humans cannot. The National Defense Search Dog Foundation, located in Ojai, California, oversees one of the country's largest and most successful dog training programs.
Boot Camp for Dogs
Recruited from both animal shelters and breeders, search dogs are chosen mainly for an unusually strong "prey-drive," their determination to find a hidden toy. This trait is most commonly found in herding dogs, such as German shepherds, or sporting dogs such as golden retrievers. Once selected, they are placed with a host family for one to two months to learn basic obedience skills and socialization. Following this phase, they enter "canine boot-camp," where they undergo intensive search-and-rescue training for six to eight months. During this time, perspective handlers arrive for a five-day training session. Next, dogs and handlers are matched, and the team continues to train together.
Once a dog has completed this phase, it is tested for advanced certification by the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The certification process normally takes a year to complete, and as few as 15% of the candidates achieve advanced certification. Search and rescue teams must be recertified by FEMA every other year, ensuring that only the most highly qualified dogs are allowed to work at disaster sites.
Benefits Outweigh Costs
While training is rigorous and expensive-the Search Dog Foundation estimates it costs $30,000 to train a dog - the advantages it provides during disasters are well worth the investment. For example, search and rescue dogs are trained to navigate dangerous terrain, including burning ruins and flood devastated areas. Their sense of smell sets them apart from other service dogs; search and rescue dogs are able to focus on the scent of a missing or trapped human and ignore other distractions. Once they have located a body, the dogs quickly return to their handler and alert them to the find. To these dogs, searching for survivors is like looking for a hidden toy, and they would like nothing more than to find that prize as soon as possible.
A Shortage of Qualified Dogs
Search dogs have successfully located survivors at some of the county's worst disasters, including the 1994 Oklahoma City bombing, the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks, and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Their success has led to great demand for their services and a shortage of qualified dogs. FEMA says that 336 disaster search teams are required to adequately prepare the country for disasters, but there are currently only 150 Advanced Certified teams.
In addition to finding a suitable dog, a suitable handler also must be found. The handler, who is almost always a firefighter, must be with the dog at all times and be ready to respond to any incident. A dog's service life can last up to ten years, and during that time the dog and handler form a unique bond that allows them to be an efficient lifesaving team. The dog normally continues to live with its handler after it has been retired from service.
The Search Dog Foundation is a non-profit organization that does not receive government funding, relying instead on donations to fund the training programs. The foundation was created in 1995 by Wilma Melville, a retired school teacher who was concerned by the lack of search dogs available to hunt for survivors of the Oklahoma City bombings. The foundation currently has a long waiting list of fire departments interested in obtaining the services of a search dog, a sign of just how quickly the program has developed into the country's most respected search dog training service.