Disaster Search and Rescue Dogs

Kristen Mehus-Roe

They make it look easy and they do it for fun. But behind a certified disaster dog is hundreds

of miles, thousands of dollars and continuous training.

Manny, a border collie, leaps across jutting stone and twisted metal on a large rubble pile. He zeroes in on a wooden pallet wedged between chunks of cement and begins to bark. Hidden underneath is Debra Tosch, a search dog handler and the executive director of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (NDSDF) in Ojai, California. Tosch doesn't move until Manny's handler, Ron Weckbacher, reaches them. Then, Tosch extends a hand from her hiding place to offer Manny his reward - a tug toy. "Good Manny, good dog!" cheer both handlers. Manny grasps the toy and pulls, dancing and whining in excitement. To dogs like Manny, search and rescue is a game, and that game is their life.

disaster search rescue dogs

On a beautiful, quiet day in Southern California, it's hard to believe that this game Manny plays so avidly is all in preparation for other, less calm days, in less calm places. Days like the one last September when Weckbacher and Manny, and Tosch and her black Lab, Abby, were deployed with 11 other NDSDF teams to search for victims buried beneath the remains of the World Trade Center in New York City. Like all members of NDSDF, Tosch and Weckbacher train with their dogs week in and week out so that they'll be ready for that terrifying moment when the sky falls in.

Name of the Game

The dogs used for disaster search and rescue (SAR), also called urban search and rescue, use their noses to find living victims who are trapped in the crannies and voids created when a building collapses due to an earthquake, hurricane or explosion. Other SAR dogs are trained in wilderness, avalanche or water searches - each type of SAR demands specific training. Disaster dogs must be able to focus on their search while navigating large piles of shifting rubble and contending with distractions that may include other search dogs and people, and the presence of cadavers.

The seed for the NDSDF was sown when retired physical education teacher and certified dog handler Wilma Melville was deployed to Oklahoma City in the aftermath of the bombing of the Murrah building. In 1995, Melville and her dog, Murphy, were among only 15 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)-certified disaster dogs in the United States. Most of the dog teams sent to Oklahoma City were not FEMA-certified, meaning that they hadn't passed either the Basic or Advanced certification protocols that attest to their level of proficiency. Melville acknowledges that there's no way to say for certain that additional victims would have been found alive had there been more certified SAR dogs in Oklahoma City. However, one thing she will say: 'People trapped in rubble have a narrow window of time open for their survival. The sooner they're rescued, the better their chances. "

Before Oklahoma City, Melville was much like any other volunteer SAR handler in the United States. She had retired in Ojai, California, had a dog, Topah, whom she enjoyed teaching new things, and decided to pursue wilderness SAR as a hobby. She joined an SAR group, but they met sporadically and even after several years, she and her dog hadn't advanced far enough to participate in an actual wilderness search. "I went through two fairly typical years of trying to find how to be taught properly," says Melville.

It wasn't until Melville switched to disaster SAR that she met Pluis Davern, a gun-dog trainer with experience training dogs for disaster search. "Pluis raised the bar," says Melville. "She said, 'This is what any dog can do, and this is what exceptional dogs can do.'"Although Topah was "not a bad dog," Melville started over with a black Lab, Murphy, a dog she chose specifically for her high drive.

Under Davern's tutelage, the team came along quickly. "We reached Advanced certification with virtually no problem," says Melville. "I found that there are three necessary ingredients for success: a handler who is committed and willing to learn; a dog with all of the right characteristics; and the proper person to teach them both. What a revelation!"

After Oklahoma, Melville knew that if another disaster struck, there would still not be enough dogs for the job. FEMA estimates that at least 300 Advanced-certified teams are needed to cope with a large-scale disaster. Seven years later, the organization inspired by Melville's despair over Oklahoma City has produced 26 FEMA-certified SAR teams. Of the four dozen certified teams at the World Trade Center, 13 were trained by NDSDF.

Ingredients for Success

Disaster dogs must have high drive and great noses, and also be well-socialized, obedient and agile, so Melville looks for dogs with these attributes. She chooses golden and Labrador retrievers, border collies, and mixes thereof. She opts to use shelter/rescue dogs because they often have the qualities needed for SAR work. Ironically, the energy and drive that make them difficult house pets are ideal qualities in a search dog.

Because SAR handlers must be willing to train endlessly for an event that will probably never happen in their dog's lifetime, Melville works through California's Office of Emergency Systems to recruit firefighters as handlers. Firefighters are accustomed to endless training, she says, and they already have flexible schedules, a connection to rescue and the emotional strength to face a disaster site.

When funding is available, Melville selects dogs from 10 to 18 months of age and places them with Pluis Davern at her Gilroy, California, training facility for six months. After that, the dogs are joined by their new handlers, who have received a week's training prior to meeting their dogs. The handlers stay in Gilroy for a week to learn how to work with their dogs. During the next three months, the handlers return to Gilroy frequently to address training issues that arise.

Throughout their careers, NDSDF teams train daily on agility and obedience and twice weekly on rubble piles. During the first year, the handlers log many hours of driving time, exposing their dogs to diverse search areas from San Diego to Sacramento. Most handlers estimate that they spend $5,000 per year on travel, equipment and dog care. Although NDSDF covers the initial six-month training for firefighter teams-civilians pay for the training themselves-it does not cover these incidentals.

After developing the program for almost seven years, Melville and the foundation's handlers and supporters felt they were on the right track, but it took the attack on the World Trade Center for them to realize just how far they had come.

The Day the Sky Fell

Seth Peacock recalls his arrival at Ground Zero. "I was the last one out of the van. As soon as I got out, some guy spotted me and said, 'Hey! We need dogs down here!'" Although stunned by the size of the rubble field, Peacock knew what his first priority must be. "You're walking into this rubble and you don't know what's underneath and there are hazards overhead," he recalls. "I was in complete awe, but I also had to think, now what's my next move, what is my dog doing, and how do I stay alive'"

Advanced-certified Pup Dog, meanwhile, was straining at the leash.

Tosch and Weckbacher and their dogs arrived days later, but had similar first impressions. Says Weckbacher, "When you get there and the towers are no longer part of the skyline and all you see is smoke and lights coming from where the Trade Center once was... you feel like you're in a dream." Manny and Abby, like Pup Dog, were raring to go. Endless repetition at hundreds of sites had conditioned the NDSDF dogs to any situation. "When I released Abby for the search," says Tosch, "her attitude was 'Yes! A new playground!'"

Abby's agility on the rubble pile impressed even her handler. "We learned very quickly that we're absolutely doing something right [at NDSDF]," says Tosch. "Our dogs just went out there and had no problem negotiating the rubble, crossing six-inch I-beams over a 40-foot drop, with the beams warped and metal moving."

"Not all the dogs in New York were anywhere near the level of the foundation dogs," says Peacock. Inexperienced dogs are at risk of injury, he says, because they tense up, lose their footing and fall. Also, constant training on rubble piles toughened the NDSDF dogs' pads, so they did not need to wear protective booties that can make a dog less sure-footed.

"It was a judgment call every time you went on a search," says Tosch. "Do I put booties on her, or don't I? I always decided she was better off without them so she could have that footing. I was more worried about her falling 40 feet than getting a cut.

"We were very careful," Tosch continues. "We didn't send them into hot areas, we didn't send them into voids that hadn't been checked by structural engineers and hazmat [hazardous materials] specialists. I was constantly watching and worrying - it's our job to watch them very closely." Among the 13 NDSDF teams at Ground Zero, there were no injuries, not even a cut paw.

"I don't want to undermine anybody's commitment or training," says Weckbacher, "but there were dogs [in New York] who really should not have been there. To have a dog who is untrained working in a disaster is unfair to the dog. Not only do we train these dogs, but we also need to be advocates for them. They have limitations, and it's important to understand what they are and not ask them to do things they're not capable of." SAR dogs trained for wilderness or tracking simply haven't been trained to deal with the complexities of a disaster site.

Peacock adds that inexperienced dogs also adversely affect the search process. "Even if the dog goes over that area, we can't say that it's been cleared." What a dog doesn't find is often as important as what it does. Once a FEMA-certified dog clears an area, the searchers can move on.

Although Peacock was on the pile when two of the last living victims, firefighters, were pulled from the rubble, no living victims were found after the night of September 13. As a result, the search became frustrating for both handlers and dogs. To keep the dogs motivated, the NDSDF handlers made a point of doing "runaways" each night, hiding a handler with a tug toy and sending the dog to search. "They don't realize this is a job," explains Weckbacher, "they think it's fun. Not being rewarded, not getting their paycheck, they start to get a little bit down."

Playing for Keeps

NDSDF dogs are trained to find live victims, not cadavers, but most search dogs have passive, untrained responses to cadaver smell. Some dogs will slow and wag their tails slowly, or move their head sideways, as if trying to figure out the scent. Other dogs will urinate on or try to roll in an area where there is cadaver smell. Highly experienced handlers know their dogs well enough to reliably interpret this behavior. "Our job is to understand our dogs and what they're trying to tell us," says Weckbacher. At Ground Zero, NDSDF handlers let workers know when their dogs indicated trapped bodies, but then moved on in their search for living victims.

The NDSDF handlers were awed by the ability their dogs showed, knowing that if there had been living victims, they would have found them. "I couldn't have asked her to anything more," says Tosch of Abby. "Everything I did ask her to do, she gave so willingly." Weckbacher adds, "I've always approached this with the idea that if it were me or my wife, or if it were my son, I'd want the best team out there, and that's how we train," Weckbacher adds. "We want to make sure if there are victims, live people, after an incident like that, we give them the best possibility of being found."

For More Information

National Disaster Search Dog Foundation

323 East Matilija Street Suite 110-245

Ojai, CA 93023,

(805) 646-1015; (888) 646-1242 www.ndsdf.org

Since September 11, NDSDF, the grassroots SAR organization housed in an anonymous terra cotta building in rural California, has received almost $1 million in donations. Dog lovers from across America donated to the foundation. Other donations came in from the families of victims. "One family lost their 26-year-old daughter," says Lori Mohr, an NDSDF board member and volunteer. "They sent in a bunch of checks, saying that in lieu of flowers they'd asked people to give a donation to the foundation." A New York firefighter who lost his best friend sponsored a search and rescue dog through training. These donations have allowed NDSDF to put 18 dogs into training and establish NDSDF training groups in Florida and Ohio. While FEMA's goal of 300 certified teams is a long way off - the number hovers around 114 - NDSDF continues to work toward that goal.

This fall, an American Kennel Club-sponsored art exhibit of hand-painted, lifesized, fiberglass dogs will be displayed in public places around New York City to raise awareness of the need for more trained SAR dogs. In November, the statues will go on auction. Net proceeds will go to SAR groups - including NDSDF.

Kristin Mehus-Roe is a freelance writer and editor based in Long Beach, California.

© 2002

ASPCA Animal Watch - Fall 2002

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