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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"We could use a little more recognition," says Ms. Clemmo, who put in grueling hours with her border collie, Blitz, at Manhattan's ground zero, once using her own hands to save Blitz when the dog's back leg caught on fire.

"There's a lot that could be done for the dogs and handlers that's not being done. Everything comes out of our own pockets – training, equipment, travel, wear and tear on our cars, gas. It adds up," she says.

There are also some volunteer workers who should be weeded out of the field, contends Clemmo. "There should be a state evaluation, and there should be paid professionals."

But some hesitate to turn too quickly from the volunteer system that has produced such excellent results. Barry Kellogg, a leader of one of the veterinary teams that works alongside FEMA, says that for the most part workers at ground zero were thrilled to see how well the dogs and their handlers performed under conditions none could have anticipated.

He agrees, however, that some of the worker-dog combinations should not have been there.

"When people come in wearing shorts and sandals saying, 'I have a rescue dog,' you know something is very wrong," Dr. Kellogg says. At least one worker who turned up with a dog at the World Trade Center site was found to be an impostor.

Kellogg believes an eventual move toward a more professional system for working with rescue dogs in the US is inevitable, in part because of the increased focus on security in this country, and partly because humans are still only beginning to discover the amazing potential of canines. "The canine teams are still an under-utilized resource," he says.

St. Bernards set the standard

The modern rescue-dog movement is still relatively new. Although the famous Barry of St. Bernard's monastery in Switzerland – which ended up giving its name to the breed – valiantly saved avalanche victims in the 1800s, it wasn't until after World War II that the movement put down systematic roots in the US.

And it was only in 1989 – after the 1987 earthquake in Mexico City – that the US federal government began linking volunteer trainer-dog teams into regional task forces, says Peter Bakersky, executive officer of the National Preparedness Division, FEMA Region 8 in Denver.

Since the 1950s, there has been growing interest in the US about training rescue dogs. But until the 1980s, most trainers focused on wilderness searches rather than the urban work seen as increasingly important today.

Currently there are 28 FEMA task forces across the US. Each group hopes to have 12 dog-handler teams, fully trained in urban search-and-rescue work, but not all have reached that goal yet, and not all the dogs on the teams have achieved FEMA certification.

Today there are 103 FEMA-certified rescue dogs in the US. Bakersky estimates at least 130 are needed. In his opinion, the others don't need to be certified, but simply trained and qualified.

But some call that estimate too low. Ms. Melville, whose foundation has produced 28 FEMA-certified handlers (the largest number to come from any single group), believes there should be at least 300.

At the site of the former World Trade Center there were about 400 dogs at work – the largest deployment of dogs in the nation's history. Approximately 80 of these dogs were FEMA-certified.

Although German shepherds, golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, and border collies remain favorite choices for rescue work, dogs deployed at ground zero included Australian shepherds, Portuguese water dogs, Belgian Malinois, giant schnauzers, and even rat terriers.

Breed matters much less than attitude. The key is finding a hard-driving, enthusiastic dog that wants to play nonstop and works eagerly for a reward. Mixed breeds can be as effective as thoroughbreds.

The best candidate, says Melville, is often a dog that is too rambunctious and prey-driven to make a good family pet. That's why the NDSDF now scours animal shelters – where unwanted pets are often dumped – as one source for its dogs. Melville says she can walk into a shelter and determine in 10 minutes if a dog is a good candidate for rescue work.

The Humane Society of the United States is also encouraging the use of dogs from animal shelters as canine emergency workers. The group is offering financial backing for trainers willing to use only positive reinforcement in their training methods, and giving special preference to any trainer whose dog originally came from a shelter.

The rescue-dog movement is growing in other directions as well. It is rapidly becoming more international, particularly in earthquake-prone countries like Japan and Turkey, which are eager to invest more in research and training.

In addition, new canine capabilities are constantly being uncovered. Water-scenting dogs, for instance, are a growing new area, as trainers are discovering the amazing ability of some dogs to locate human remains in a body of water while sniffing from a boat or simply standing on the shore.

There is also more attention being paid to the therapeutic value of the dogs at a disaster site.

Kellogg says he was profoundly impressed by the sensitivity the dogs displayed to the needs of the humans surrounding them at ground zero, and how effective they were at restoring morale to depressed and discouraged workers.

"It's difficult to take a warm, licking tongue and still be angry or introverted," he says.

And for the dogs, too, love coming back from the humans around them is essential. Search-and-rescue dogs generally live with their handlers, and the intense emotional bond the pair forge is key to the dog's willingness to do the work.

Melville says she sometimes tells people considering work as a handler, "Don't do this unless you're ready to experience marriage to a dog."

"They're also family dogs," says Clemmo. "They have to come home to a loving environment. They sleep on the couch, they sleep on the bed."

For some handlers, it's the desire to experience the powerful human-animal connection that brings them to the work.

But there are other drives at work as well. Luke Charbonneau is watching at the training exercise in Beverly where Ranger is sharpening his skills. Mr. Charbonneau is currently preparing his own young dog, a yellow Lab named Sam, to begin this work as soon as possible.

Part of his interest in the work, Charbonneau says, stems from a simple desire to see Sam excel. When asked, however, if he is really prepared to devote so much of his life to a strictly volunteer activity and hobby, his answer is swift and serious.

"If someday we save even one life," he says, "it will all have been worth it."

• For more information about search-and-rescue dogs, see the following websites: the FEMA website at www.fema.gov/usr/canine.shtm; the website for the American Rescue Dog Association in Chester, N.Y., at www.ardainc.org; and the website of the National Search Dog Foundation in Ojai, Calif., at www.ndsdf.org.

A tale of two canine emergency workers

In some ways, Moxie and Tara have everything in common.

Both are handsome Labrador retrievers with Federal Emergency Management Agency certification as search-and-rescue dogs, placing them in an elite category with the nation's most highly trained dogs.

And yet the differences between the two serve as proof that dogs are every bit as unique as their owners.

"Moxie's whole attitude towards life is 'Let's party!' " says her owner and handler, Massachusetts firefighter Mark Alberti.

On Sept. 11, 2001, when Mr. Alberti and Moxie jumped into a van to speed to New York to begin work at the site of the former World Trade Center, Moxie was overjoyed.

"It was like, 'Great! A chance to spend a whole week with Mark!' " says her owner.

She worked heroically and hard, searched successfully for human remains, but basically treated the whole experience as a romp in the park.

Tara, on the other hand was sober and purposeful on the 11th, clearly picking up on the mood of the humans around her, says her handler and owner, Lee Prentiss, who is also an Massachusetts firefighter.

When she was unable to make live rescues in the ruins, she experienced stress and discouragement, and was cheered only when volunteers agreed to hide in the rubble and give her a chance to "rescue" them.

Today Moxie and Tara are together again, practicing at a Beverly, Mass., training site to renew their FEMA certification. They must demonstrate their ability to respond to commands, navigate an obstacle course, and take no more than 15 minutes to find two "victims" hidden in a pile of rubble.

Tara, warns Mr. Prentiss, may not perform well today. At 8 years of age she's reaching the end of her career as a search-and-rescue dog. He plans to get a new pup soon, and to ease Tara into a new role as a teacher. She surprises Prentiss, however, by acing every element of the practice exam.

Moxie's performance, on the other hand, falls just a little short of what will be required when she takes the real test next month.

There is one test, however, that Moxie always passes with flying colors. A born snuggler, she frequently tries to squeeze all 62 pounds of her chocolate-colored frame into Alberti's lap, hungry for a little love.

The sleek Tara, however, prefers to demonstrate her love in more distant and dignified ways – something that has always disappointed Prentiss just a bit. His next dog, he hopes, will combine Tara's search-and-rescue skills with a little more of Moxie's desire to cuddle.

Canine qualities

What it takes to become a search-and-rescue dog

• Attitude counts, not breed.

• Must have a strong prey-drive, an interest in playing nonstop, and a willingness to work for rewards.

• Agility and endurance are also crucial.

What it takes to become a handler

• Physical fitness.

• Love of working with dogs.

• Willingness to invest hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars in training.

• Ability to travel to training sessions.

• A job with some flexibility and a very supportive and understanding family.

Additional considerations

• The first two years of a dog's training require about 20 to 30 hours of work each week, plus an investment of about $10,000.

• Even after two years of rigorous training, the likelihood of a dog achieving FEMA certification on the first try is only about 20 percent.

• A search-and-rescue dog's prime work years are from about 3 to 8 or 10 years of age.

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