Turning a Rescue into a Rescuer

I often get asked about how to become involved with Search and Rescue. Usually, someone tells me that their dog is the ultimate search machine and will find them/their toy/food in a matter of seconds, no matter where in the house they are. Or they just got a German Shepherd and are now looking for something to do with their dog. Here is some information about what Search and Rescue training entails. First let’s talk about different areas of SAR. These are some of the more common ones:

  • Urban Search and Rescue (Disaster)
    coloradoThese are the teams who are deployed when disaster hits, such as a tornado, hurricane or earthquake. Just hours after the devastating tornadoes hit Oklahoma City in May 2013, multiple disaster dog teams were on scene, working tirelessly to find survivors, buried underneath rubble piles. Often the dogs work independently from their handlers, sometimes, for safety reasons, the handlers are not even close to the dogs. Usually, these dogs have a bark alert, meaning, they will bark to indicate a live victim. Unlike some of the wilderness SAR dogs, they will  not leave the victim and they will wait for the handler to come to them, thus minimizing the risk of navigating the rubble. With the bark alert, they do not need to be in view of their handlers. On occasions, the handler gives the K9 a command to change direction, using hand signals.
  • Avalanche
    Avalanche dogs are trained to find survivors of avalanches. Many sources quote the Swiss army to be the first ones to have trained Avalanche dogs and/or date the first incident of a dog finding survivors in avalanches in the 1930s. However, Barry, a famous St. Bernard from Switzerland, saved many lives back in 1800. Here is another link to the history of St. Bernards as avalanche dogs: Smithonian. I fondly remember visiting Barry, who’s body is an exhibit in the Natural History Museum in Berne, Switzerland. Avalanche dogs have a long history not only in Switzerland but in many other countries, who have snow year-round. These dogs efficiently cover a wide area almost impossible for people to search. Nowhere else is time as much of essence as after an avalanche. 66% of avalanche victims die after within the first 30 minutes (Avalanche Survival Curve).  Avalanche dogs normally start digging as part of their alert.
  • Wilderness/Tracking
    chinoWilderness Search and Rescue is often sent, when hikers have gone missing. In some cases, the teams are looking for physically and/or mentally disabled people (e.g. Alzheimer patients). They have to cover a large, sometimes mountainous area or deep forests. Tracking dogs, much like disaster dogs, do not have a specific person’s scent – they are to find any live person in distress. Unlike disaster and avalanche dogs, they are usually trained not to stay with the victim, but to come back to the handler. Their alert varies, but a common alert is to take an object from their collar into their mouth and bring it to their handler (Bringsel). Tracking dogs often are out of their handlers view, working independently through brushes and obstacles.
  • Wilderness/Trailing
    Just as Tracking dogs, Trailing dogs search for lost persons. The difference is, Tracking dogs are trained to follow a specific odor, making them the number one choice K9s for Law Enforcement searching for criminals. If the dogs are handled by the Police in search of a felon, they are most likely trained to apprehend and bite – unless they are Bloodhounds. In which case the found person may get slobbered. 😉
  • Search and Recovery
    Search and Recovery is just as important as rescuing people. For families and friends, it is crucial to get closure and to be able to recover the body of the missing person. For Law Enforcement, Search and Recovery can solve a crime. Recovery dogs can be trained to find crime scenes, blood, bones (including historic bones, such as old burial grounds, etc.) and dead bodies. Some of these dogs are efficient water dogs, working on boats to find bodies underwater.

All these dogs have one thing in common: they can efficiently do the job of many people and machines. Some say, one dog is as efficient as 150 people. They are able to cover a large ground in a short time. And their noses are an invaluable tool to save lives.

frida20Now we get to the next subject – the dog. Finding anything in the house does not make a dog a blooming star on the K9 SAR sky. Focus and drive are necessary, but also the ability to work independently, fearlessness, balance to navigate difficult terrain (think piles on piles of rubble and wood or fields of snow), willingness to stay on odor and at the victim, be absolutely trustworthy with strangers (solid temperament) and most importantly, work tirelessly and focused even under stress. Ideally, a dog is not older than 2 years, when SAR training starts. Never had a broken limb or a seizure. They can’t be tiny or they won’t be able reach every inch of a rubble pile. They can’t be too big either or they won’t be as agile.

Dogs like that are very, very rare. In fact, if you know of one who’s looking for a home, please don’t hesitate to contact me!  I picked the title ‘Turning a Rescue into a Rescuer’ because many SAR dogs are shelter dogs, rescued from high kill shelters, often dumped there by people, who were not able to handle such energy. One organization who focuses on training such dogs is the non-profit National Search Dog Foundation. They provide trained K9s to handlers from FEMA teams nationwide since 1995.

Now that we established the type of dog we need for SAR, let’s have a look at the other end of the leash, the handler. SAR training and work is not for the couch potatoes, we all know that. But are you able to climb a ladder with your dog on your shoulders? Work hours after hours in burning heat on a pile of broken concrete slabs or dig through a mountain of wood pallets including rusty nails until you’re on top of it?fridawood Hike for days or run through forests, steep hills or ski through treacherous snow? And if the answer is yes, are you ready to commit almost all your free time to training – you and your dog? Spend money on gas and seminars, books and equipment and not ever expect to be paid back? Are you able to leave work on a moment’s notice to be deployed for an unknown amount of days or weeks?

If you are still interested in joining a SAR group, contact your local Sheriff’s department, a fire department or a SAR organization in your area, such as CARDA. They might invite you to take part in their training for a while before they (and you) commit. Many teams will gladly accept help in form of ‘victims’, who pose for their dogs. There is much to be learned while playing victim! Many groups are also always looking for new training grounds. Some teams may have open trainings and often times will allow the public to watch certifications.

For even more in-depth information, click here for an online class about K9 SAR.

How to Put Together a K9 First Aid Kit

Since I mentioned the K9 First Aid kit in my blog about having an emergency plan for your dog, I have been asked, how to put one together. Putting together your own kit might be cheaper than buying one and you can add to it over time. Here are some important tips and ingredients for your K9 First Aid kit:

1) Only add tools, medications and other things you actually know how to use. While Subcutaneous Fluids look fancy and professional in a kit, it is useless, if you do not know how to actually use it.

Check for mucus membrane color and capillary refill time

2) The best kit will not help you much, if you do not know if your dog is sick or can’t diagnose what is wrong. In order to know that there is something going on with your dog, you need to know your dog. Over a course of a couple of weeks, take your dog’s vital signs every second day: temperature, heartbeat, mucus membrane color and capillary refill time. Check eyes and ears, so that you become familiar with your dog and your dog gets used to a quick health check. Write down the values on a piece of paper. For temperature and heartbeat, repeat the check after exercise and about 10 minutes after exercise to see, how much the levels rise and how fast they go down again. Knowing your dog’s regular body temperature, which can be between 100 and 103 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on breed and individual dog, can help you to quickly diagnose hyperthermia (heat distress and heat stroke) – or hypothermia (core body temperature too cold) and treat it fast. This alone can save your dog’s life! Calculate the average levels of your dog’s vital signs and write them on a piece of paper, which you will keep in your kit. It’s easy to have it laminated at a store like Kinko’s.

3) If your dog has certain conditions, like allergies, seizures, etc., make sure, you have a supply of their medication in your kit. Ask your vet to prescribe you an extra amount, so you can store it in the first aid kit.

4) Here are some basic parts of a K9 First Aid kit:

  • Saline – to wash wounds and eyes
  • Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) – 0.5 to 2mg per pound, every 8 – 12 hours, relieves allergy symptoms. If your dog suffers severe allergies (e.g. bee sting), this will NOT save your dog, but may give you additional time until you are at an emergency clinic.
  • Hydrogen Peroxide – one teaspoon per 10 pounds induces vomiting. Do NOT induce vomiting if your dog is losing consciousness or has ingested anything, that could hurt your dog when coming up (sharp objects, chemicals, etc.). Do NOT use Hydrogen Peroxide for anything else. It has been used for washing wounds in the past, but has now been proven to be ineffective. Instead use an antibacterial spray or cream.
  • Antibacterial wash, spray or cream – do not use a ‘triple antibiotic’ such as Neosporin. Although many dog owners, even veterinaries, recommend it, they can actually be poisonous to dogs. Safe antiseptics to use for dogs are for example Betagen or simply Betadine.
  • Scissors – to cut bandages
  • Bandages (non sticky)
  • Adhesive tape – band-aids won’t stick to the fur
  • Sterile pads and/or Gauze 
  • Alcohol Pads – can help disinfect a small area, but is also poisonous to the dog when ingested.
  • Digital Thermometer – non-digital thermometers contain mercury and can harm you and your dog, if they break. Digital Thermometers are safer and usually faster.
  • Non-latex Gloves
  • Water
  • Tweezers – can be used for ticks or small objects sticking in your dog (e.g. piece of glass in the paws). Do not pull out any bigger objects or objects which are deeply imbedded. Instead secure these objects with gauze or bandages around it and go to the emergency clinic as quickly as possible.
  • Hand Sanitizer
  • Chart with your dog’s normal vital signs and levels – temperature, heart rate, mucus membrane color, capillary refill time
  • List with emergency clinic contacts, Poison Center telephone number, regular veterinary contact

5) And here are some items I pack additionally:

  • White, clean towel – if I suspect my dog having a wound, but I can’t find anything, I can wipe him or her down with a white towel, to find any possible bleeding fast.
  • Muzzle – a dog in pain will bite. It does not matter, if it is your own sweet dog or not. Do NOT muzzle your dog if you induced vomiting, if your dog is losing consciousness, if your dog is in heat distress or has difficulties breathing.
  • Collapsible bowl – can be used as a water bowl
  • Additional leash – a leash can be used as a muzzle
  • Wire cutter – if the dog in distress has a choke chain and the head swells (e.g. due to allergies), the only way to get the collar off, might be the wire cutter.
  • Syringe/Pipette – makes it easier for your dog to swallow Hydrogen Peroxide or other medication.
  • Flashlight
  • Treats – to calm your dog
  • Activated Charcoal – can help with a poisoned dog. Always go to the emergency clinic as fast as you can or call the Poison Center if you suspect poisoning.
  • Styptic Powder – can stop bleeding fast. Only used on small wounds.
  • Honey – is an antibacterial substance that can seal a clean small wound and prevent infection.
  • Survival Blanket – can help a cold dog or a dog in shock
  • Instant Cold Wrap – can numb a painful area and cool down a dog. To cool down a dog in heat distress, do not place cold wrap directly on the fur. Use a towel or bandages and apply between the legs, ears or stomach area. Do not restrict the dog’s mouth or nose.

A good K9 First Aid can save your dog’s life

Check your kit regularly and have an inventory list. This helps you in case of emergency to keep track of what you have and where you have it. Check for expiration dates and replace old products. Take a First Aid class and keep current – you can also keep notes on how to perform K9 CPR, etc. in your kit.

Keep a kit in your car, if you frequently travel with your dog and check with your veterinary for more ideas on what items could be life saving. A K9 First Aid kit is just that: First Aid. Always check with your veterinary or when in doubt, go to an emergency clinic right away. Cuts, abrasions and bruises in your dog’s face may need veterinary checks because of their vicinity of the eyes. Dog bites can leave small but very deep wounds and need to be cleaned very thoroughly. Always keep a close eye to wounds and abrasions, if they do not appear to heal, if the area gets more sensitive or seems swollen, go to a veterinary or emergency clinic.

The number of the Animal Poison Control Center is: 888-4ANI-HELP (888-426-4435) – there is usually a fee for the call.

Are You Ready When Disaster Strikes?

There is an emergency scenario in almost all parts of our world: Fires, earthquakes, hurricanes… Some are more common than others, but we all live with the thought of one of those potential dangerous situations. So much so, that there are now even TV Shows about people, who prepare almost full time for emergencies, like Nat Geo’s latest hit ‘Doomsday Preppers‘. While they might take things to the extreme, we all know, that we need to be prepared in case of a situation, where food and water are not easy to come by, or evacuation is mandatory. One of the worst things about emergency situations is, that they are unpredictable. They can hit from one second to the next. Even if there is some warning, like in the case of a wild fire closing in or a weather related disaster, such as a hurricane or tornado, there may be little time to prepare. That is why it is so important to have a plan. For us dog people, we have to plan for our canine family members as well. Catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina showed us, how essential it is, to even have crates for the dogs. Most shelters will not allow dogs, unless they are crated. And that is yet another example, of why it is so important to crate train your dog.

An additional leash can be used as a muzzle

Let’s start with the obvious: food and water. Most organizations recommend a 3 day supply. Personally, I like to have enough for two weeks. Dogs need about 1.5 ounces of water per pound body weight, when they are relaxed. Be generous though. When dogs are stressed (which is likely in an emergency scenario) or active, they start panting and their need for water increases. When you store dry food, make sure, it is in a safe air tight container, to avoid any water getting in and spoil it. Change it every once in a while, so it doesn’t expire. Use the same brand you normally feed. You don’t want to change your dog’s food in an emergency situation and risk diarrhea, when you might be short on medication, veterinary access or water. If you feed raw food, you might want to think about a high quality kibble to store for emergency situations, since freezers may not be an option. If your dog food is in cans, don’t forget the can opener!

Paperwork may be more important than you think. Keep a copy of your dog’s current license, vaccination records, medical data (allergies, medication) and other information, such as name, date of birth, regular dog food, temperament (e.g. fearful of strangers) – and don’t forget a list with emergency addresses, emergency clinic and your regular veterinary. If you have to evacuate to a shelter, they will want to see your dog’s records – and if you have to leave your dog behind, you can tack a copy of all these information on your door for the rescue personnel. I recommend to have these records laminated. In case you do have to leave your dog behind, keep them safely contained inside with enough water for a couple of days and some food.

A K9 First Aid Kit can save your dog’s life

Next: Medical supplies. Prepare a K9 first aid kit – it is essential to have, not only in emergency situations. I even keep one in my car. A lot that goes into K9 first aid kit can also be used for humans – two flies with one strike. Additionally, I always store a couple of cans of pumpkin, no sugar or any other ingredients, the regular store-bought kind. It helps with diarrhea and constipation and most dogs like it enough to eat it with their regular food. Make sure, you have an adequate amount of your dog’s medication, if needed. Talk to your veterinary clinic about getting a bigger refill, so you can store some in an airtight container. They might also be able to recommend supplies for the first aid kit.

You will also need every day items, such as your dog bed, water and food bowls and pick up bags. I include some favorite toys to play and some chew toys like a Kong. Store everything in a carton box, so you can just grab it and go. An additional set of leashes is also useful.

Once you have everything organized, you need to make a list of nearby shelters, including motels, who are pet friendly. Write down the number of your local shelter – they may have more information in case of emergency. Make sure your dog’s tags are up to date and include your phone number and address.

All these steps don’t take much time. Dedicate a Sunday afternoon or Saturday morning to create an emergency preparedness kit and a plan! Enlist the help of your kids to put it together, so they are more aware, too. FEMA has some interesting and useful articles on their website, here is one specifically for pet owners:  FEMA – Information for Pet Owners.