The SDF training program finds shelter dogs and turns them into all-star search-and-rescue dogs.
Most of us have seen search-and-rescue dogs on TV looking for a lost child or tracking a missing person’s unique scent. We also hear about them in times of natural or other disasters, such as Sept. 11, the earthquakes in Japan and Haiti, tornadoes in Joplin, Mo., and many other disasters around the world. These dogs are often the unsung heroes of the survivors, alerting their handlers to the presence of someone buried deep under mounds of crushing debris.
Just who are these amazing canine creatures, and how are they able to find survivors buried alive in a building, track the scent of the missing, and find a dead body or a person underwater?
Search-and-rescue, or SAR, dogs are carefully trained to use their powerful noses to sniff out people in the worst of all situations. Humans constantly emit microscopic particles of tissue or skin cells that are cast off as the person moves. Millions of these heavier-than-air particles, which contain the person’s unique smell, are carried by the wind and settle close to the ground where dogs can pick up the scent buried under building debris, snow and water.
SAR dogs are trained to disregard distractions, such as the smell of other rescue workers, their handlers and other animals, and focus solely on finding trapped victims. When the dogs find a survivor, they continuously bark at close proximity to the victim so the rescue team knows where to search.
These dogs work without vests or leashes so they don’t get snagged on rubble. They might be required to fit through tight tunnels of ruins or even climb, dig or crouch into tiny spots to pick up the scent of a human survivor. Each dog has unique strengths and abilities that make it right for different SAR tasks.
Extraordinary SAR dogs
Wilma Melville, founder of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation based in Ojai, Calif., was a retired school teacher in the early ’90s looking to do something special with her new dog and chose SAR training. After years of joining various organizations, she and her dog weren’t making much progress. Then she hooked up with dog trainer Pluis Davern, now the lead canine trainer at NDSDF. The experience was like opening a curtain in a dark room. “That was the difference between those amateur groups and a professional trainer,” Melville says. “Davern had SAR experience, and like many civilians, she went to one disaster and said, ‘I don’t want to do that ever again, but I’ll train dogs to do it.’”
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