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Canines to the rescue!

After earthquakes or disasters such as the World Trade Center, volunteer teams of highly trained dogs and their handlers are quick to respond with help

By Marjorie CoeymanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 28, 2002


It's a gray and drizzly Saturday afternoon, and a feisty yellow Labrador retriever named Ranger is standing atop a pile of rubble near a small airport in Beverly, Mass., barking wildly. Although he may look like a junkyard dog at the moment, Ranger is actually a highly trained emergency-response specialist hard at work.

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He's half of one of the dog-handler teams being tested today on their ability to find a human being hidden in a heap created to resemble a collapsed building. Ranger and his handler traveled from Florida for the chance to spend one day near this pile of rubble, all part of their pursuit of the "Ivy League degree" of the search-and-rescue dog world – Federal Emergency Management Agency certification.

When terrorists attacked the US on Sept. 11 last year, among the few positives the press and public could find to focus on in the days that followed were the canine search-and-rescue teams. A nation hungry for heroes was quick to embrace the hardworking and courageous dogs, and many quickly became celebrities.

But some in the field say the new publicity has been a mixed blessing. Although the dogs are adored, the incredibly hard work that their handlers do – on an almost entirely volunteer basis – still receives surprisingly little attention.

Of course, few in the search-and-rescue dog world are complaining about the new interest in the dogs themselves.

"It's made people aware these dogs exist," says Wilma Melville. She is a former gym teacher who founded the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (NDSDF) in Ojai, Calif., in response to her own experiences working as a volunteer dog handler at the former site of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.

Ms. Melville's group has seen donations flood in since last September. "We've received enough money this year to double the [number] of dogs that we are producing," says Ms. Melville – no small accomplishment for a group supported entirely by private funding. But many of the calls received also make clear how little the public understands the process involved in training and working with the dogs.

It takes lots of hours and money

"After something like 9/11 you get a lot of phone calls from people with romantic ideas who think they can take their 10-year-old Fifi and make her a search-and-rescue dog," says Laurie Clemmo, a volunteer canine-search specialist and 10-year veteran with New Jersey Task Force 1.

What many of the callers can't begin to imagine are the thousands of hours and the thousands of dollars in training expenses required to shape a dog into a rescue worker. What they also frequently fail to understand is that those who do this work – and these include firefighters, schoolteachers, veterinarians, lawyers, and money-market managers – are volunteers, who must foot their own expenses and offer their free time to do it.

The movement is similar in many ways to volunteer fire-departments across the country. Their motivation is a mix of an intense love of the work and a strong desire to help in a crisis.

"It's all part of a truly grass-roots effort at providing emergency response" in this country, says Paula Galvin, volunteer public affairs manager for the FEMA Massachusetts Task Force 1. "We take so much for granted when we dial 911."

But some of the dogs' handlers hope that eventually the greater interest in the dogs will translate into more attention – and more public funding – for the handlers and the work that they do.