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.


America’s Rescue Dogs Got Talent!

Search and Rescue dog Frida at a training after finding a live ‘victim’

Watching one of the recent ‘America’s Got Talent’ and seeing the group of rescue dogs performing amazing tricks, reminded me of all the working rescue dogs out there. While we appreciate dogs, who were bred to relentlessly work on finding those roadside explosive devices or flushing out terrorists and criminals, there are more dogs coming out of a rescue situation, proving that they are just as excellent in doing their job. The National Search Dog Foundationis a non-profit organization, founded in 1996 by Wilma Melville, after she worked with her dog at the terrorist-bombed Federal Building in Oklahoma City and realized, that there are not enough search and rescue dog teams in the Nation. The organization has volunteers and staff members combing through shelters throughout the country to find canines who fulfill the extraordinary skills it takes for them to become a search dog. They train the dogs, once rescued and now to become rescuers, and their handlers. Some of their dog teams have been at the 9/11 grounds, searched areas after Hurricane Katrina, went to Haiti and Japan, working hour after hour to find any living survivors. However dire the situation, when the search dogs appear, everything just seems a little bit better and a glimpse of hope returns.

Searching for bed bugs

But the Search Dog Foundation is not the only organization who employs former shelter dogs. Many groups turn to shelters in order to find those unadoptable high drive and toy crazy dogs. Often these dogs have been turned in by their owners, because they were not able to handle them, in some cases, they may have turned aggressive over their toys. Sometimes, the dogs would jump the fence over and over again, because they were just too bored. Dogs, who need a job, cannot be tired out by a brisk walk in the morning. They need a lot of mental exercise, high drive play, strenuous physical exercise and obedience training – not necessarily something, a typical pet dog owner knows how to do.

Finding a dog at the shelter and train it for work is as rewarding as winning the lottery for me, but it is also very hard to turn away a dog, who almost has the potential and may be too much for a pet, but is not quite there. For most sad stories, there are successes though. My own personal dog, Frida, who got rescued from a shelter in Los Angeles, is a Search and Rescue dog and I have been fortunate to since find and train dogs for many other jobs, such as cellphone, explosive, narcotics and contraband detection, even e.coli and bed bug detection. With the right dog, any K9 job can be done – there are many talents and hidden treasures in our shelters!

If you are toying with the idea of rescuing a dog, here is a starter on how to find the right companion for you. And how to select a dog from a breeder vs. a rescue. Most shelters and rescue organizations are looking for volunteers to walk or foster their dogs. This may be a good idea to get started and find out more about the responsibility of what it means to own a dog!

Contraband detection K9 during a break

Selecting a Dog or Breeder vs. Rescue

Puppies from responsible breeders are more likely to be healthy and active

Saving a dog and providing a home for a rescue dog is wonderful and applaudable. But there are also good reasons to buy a dog from a responsible breeder. If you are interested in a dog sport or if you have specific ideas on how your dog should be, a responsible breeder might be a better way to go. Finding the right breeder is not easy and a lot of homework needs to be done before committing. Here are some red flags that should make you be very cautious:

The place breeds more than one particular breeds
Sometimes two breeds compliment each other but usually it is advisable to pick a breeder who specializes in one single breed.

The breeder has more than 20 dogs or more than 6 litters per year
Some professional breeders have more dogs, including retired breeding dogs or they have a team looking after the dogs. Many times though, a breeder who has over 20 dogs and breeding all of them, simply does not have enough time to thoroughly look after them and giving them the interaction and exercise they need.

The dogs are not registered or are registered at a registry who is connected to puppy mill
The most popular registry in the United States is the American Kennel Club (AKC). There are breed specific registries who are perfectly fine and professional, but some registries like the Continental Kennel Club (CKC – not to be confused with the Canadian Kennel Club) or the UKC, who are not members of International Canine Organization are preferred by puppy mills. Registering a litter of puppies results in additional cost for the breeder, but the cost is not very high considering the cost of responsible breeding. By registering a litter of puppies, people can trace the heritage of their dog, which is part of finding the perfect breeding pair. If a breeder tells you that you can have a puppy with or without papers and asks for more money if your puppy should come with registered papers, run. This is a very clear sign of irresponsible breeding.

The breeder should ask lots of questions, for example what your plans for the new dog are

The breeder cannot or will not show you both parents
Not every responsible breeder has both parents on premises. In fact, many excellent breeders only have the female or the male and search for the respective counterpart a very long time. They select the pair very carefully and the female or male could even be in a different country. But you should be able to see at least the mother of the puppies.

Buying a Dog over the Internet
While buying over the Internet is not necessarily bad, it is easy for a puppy mill to pose as a legitimate professional and responsible breeder. They will show you pictures with happy and healthy puppies playing outside in the grass, a healthy mother lovingly nursing the litter and the whole human family petting and working with the dogs. Don’t be fooled. Often times, these dogs are not even theirs. Of course they will not show you the crates and cages or the sickly looking females who are forced to pump out litter after litter. There are States who are known to have more puppy mills than others. These States include Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri. This does not mean, of course, that there are no responsible breeders in these States! But by doing your homework, you will be able to weed out the bad breeders.

Fail to Provide Breed Specific Health Tests and Certification
Some breeds are prone to specific health issues. Hip Dysplasia is only one example. There are breeds who are more likely to develop eye or skin problems among many other issues. Breed organizations very often require health tests for the canine parents which show issues early on. Responsible breeders abide by these requirements and will show you the test results if you ask for them. Similarly, some sport dog breeds are required to go through certifications before breeding. Inform yourself about the breeding requirements of your favorite breed and don’t be scared to ask the breeder for proof.

Check the dog for any skin, eye or ear conditions

Breeder does not ask you any questions
Responsible breeders care about their dogs and try to find the best home possible for their puppies. Don’t be put off if they ask you tons of questions about you, your personal life, the way your house or apartment looks like, what you intend to do with your dog, if you have experience or what your work hours look like. Instead be suspicious, if the breeder does not care at all or does not seem to listen to your answers. A bad breeder just wants to sell the puppies and will not care where they end up. Responsible breeders may want to be part of the puppy’s life or at least stay in contact. Often they may include a stipulation in their contract and return a deposit money when you test your dog for breed specific health issues at a certain age – because they care. Irresponsible breeders will repeat breedings even though they do not know if the puppies produced by the last breeding, suffer from health issues completely avoidable by selecting different parents. This is also why no responsible breeder will ever sell their puppies in a pet store. No matter what you may hear when you enter a pet store, all these puppies are from puppy mills, out for the quick buck.

Rescue organizations require homework as well. Not every rescue organization is legitimate. Some will only take puppies from questionable backgrounds and pretend to have rescued them, only to sell them to you for a high ‘adoption fee’. Adoption fees are necessary to support rescue groups who’s volunteers donate their time and own money. These fees include boarding, health care and often times neutering and micro chipping dogs. Most breeds have their own rescue group who concentrate on these specific breeds, but there are also many legitimate rescue organizations who care for all type of dogs, young and old, pure bred and mixes. When considering a dog from a rescue group, look at all the dogs this group cares for. Do they only have puppies? Can they tell you where these dogs are from? Do they have volunteers fostering these dogs, do they have a boarding facility or is one person hoarding 50 dogs in the backyard? Are they a legitimate non-profit organization? Do they require a home check or do they ask you to meet them at a parking lot somewhere to transfer the dog to you? Are they able to give you enough information about the dog’s temperament and traits? You can also go directly to the shelter and see if they may have a dog who fits you perfectly. Shelters, especially in Southern California, are always full and sometimes have literally hundreds of dogs looking for a home.

With your homework done and a portion of luck, you will find your perfect canine companion, whether from a breeder or the rescue.