Call To Action

When disaster strikes, a specially trained group of dogs is ready to help. The grueling and sometimes grim work makes these animals true canine heroes.

In the event of an earthquake, fire, bomb, tornado or train wreck, could your dog climb ladders, crouch through tunnels, search through piles of debris, navigate thigh-high mud, then alert you to the survivors he found?

Don't feel bad if he can't. Dogs trained to find buried victims of disasters, crimes and other tragedies are members of an elite, highly trained corps of disaster search dogs. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) classifies only about 36 dog and handler teams in the nation as "Type 1 Advanced Canine Teams."

However, other organizations throughout the country train teams to their own standards to aid in search-and-rescue efforts.

Training these dogs is time consuming and costly. It can take up to three years of rigorous training at a cost of around $5,000 to bring a dog to FEMA certification levels, says Debra Tosch of the National Search and Rescue Dog Foundation in Ojai, California. The handlers, many of whom are volunteers, often incur the cost themselves. Tosch notes that the need for trained disaster search dog-handler teams is critical; an estimated 300 more teams are needed.

Prerequisites for the Job

Their keen sense of smell is what makes dogs perfect for search-and-rescue operations, Tosch says. Although their eyesight is comparable to that of humans, some say a dog's sense of smell is between 400 to 1,000 times more powerful than ours.

What makes a good search dog? Trainers look for these qualities:

  • High energy. Because of this requirement, disaster search dogs don't make good pets, Tosch says. "If they don't have a job'an outlet for that energy, they are very bored and find things to get into," she says.
  • High prey drive. Disaster search dogs are almost obsessed with toys, which are used extensively in their training.
  • Boldness of character. "They need to be bold, since there is a lot of chaos on a disaster site," Tosch says.
  • Herding dogs or retrievers tend to make the best search-and-rescue dogs; breeds called for duty include Labradors, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois.

In addition to disaster search dogs, canines trained to pick up the scent of human survivors buried in rubble, several other specialties of search dogs exist:

  • Avalanche dogs can detect scents of people after an avalanche.
  • Tracking dogs are given a specific human scent, such as the victim's pillow or a piece of clothing. They then trace the scent from the starting point where the person disappeared. These dogs are especially helpful in finding lost children, Alzheimer's patients and people who have wandered into the wilderness.
  • Water dogs can detect drowning victims under water.
  • Cadaver dogs can find the bodies of victims sometimes even after they have been missing for years. While the heroic efforts of these dogs don't often yield happy endings, finding a victim can give closure to the victim's family, an important step in the healing process.
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Akela to the Rescue

Meet one dog-handler team, Jeff Reich of Yellow Springs, Ohio, and his rescue dog, Akela. Reich, an emergency trauma center nurse and a volunteer paramedic, obtained and trained Akela with a grant from IAMS. The team works with the FEMA Disaster Urban Search and Rescue Ohio Task Force One and the Southwestern Ohio Search and Rescue. The team has been deployed nine times to help in search efforts.

Akela, a 4-year-old male Australian Shepherd with "to-die-for Paul Newman blue eyes," is trained to find both live victims and cadavers, Reich says. "He has a different alert for each," he explains. "If he finds someone alive, he focuses on the victim; if the victim is deceased, he focuses on me." Either way, Akela is trained to bark for 30 seconds when he finds someone.

The work is tedious and tiresome. On one cold January day, Reich and Akela found themselves bruised, cut and swollen after seven hours of searching for a state trooper who had fallen into the Ohio River at flood stage. The day was spent wading through muddy riverbanks and piles of trash. Both the rescue dogs and their handlers would get stuck in the mud and need to be pulled out. Fortunately, not all searches are as long and drawn out. In one case, helicopters and dozens of people spent an entire day searching for a suicidal man who had disappeared into the wilderness. Their efforts proved fruitless, but the search dogs that were called in the next day found the body in just 13 minutes.

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Dedication Pays Off

Disaster search dogs and their handlers share a special bond that comes with years of training and working with each other. Even when Reich works a 12-hour shift in the trauma center, he finds time to work with Akela extensively so the two are prepared for the next disaster.

The long sessions have made Akela as dedicated to his handler as Reich is to the task of finding survivors in emergencies. Reich says the reasons people volunteer for such difficult work are many and complicated. But Akela's motivation, like other search dogs, for working in such grueling conditions is simple. "He loves me and trusts me, and I ask him to," Reich says, adding that the opportunity to rescue someone in need is another incentive.

For more information on disaster search dogs, visit the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation Web site at www.ndsdf.org .

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Disaster Relief for Pets

Not only can dogs be heroes in a disaster, they can be victims, too. That's why IAMS helps sponsor four Veterinary Medical Assistant Teams (VMAT) through the American Veterinary Medical Association.

These teams are deployed when the federal government is called into a disaster area if the local support system can't handle the caseload of injured animals. The "mini MASH units" set up a self-sufficient veterinary hospital in the field to treat injured and sick animals, coordinate food relief and care for homeless pets.

In 1998, IAMS funded a $75,000 grant to initiate the VMAT teams. The grant goes toward training, buying equipment and coordinating teams across the United States. "We believe companion animals are significant members of our families and that people are significant in the lives of their pets," explains Dr. John Talmadge of IAMS.

"When disasters strike, that bond is often threatened or broken. It's important to assure people that their pets will be cared for, too. We are pleased to be supporting such a worthwhile endeavor, and to preserve the human-animal bond and improve the quality of life for people and pets in times of disaster."

For more information on the program or to donate toward relief efforts, contact the American Veterinary Medical Fondation, Disaster Relief Emergency Fund, 1931 North Meacham Road, Suite 100, Schaumburg, IL 60173.

Read more about Dog Health Information.

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