How do rescue dogs find disaster survivors?
Rescue dogs have become the best allies of rescue teams, both technically and morally.
For years now, rescue dogs have been mobilized to help find survivors among the rubble at the sites of natural disasters or accidents.
Dogs are looking for human breath, Sinead Imbaro, a police officer and military trainer for the Police Dog Unit in the United States, tells News Nation. If they find someone, they bark to alert the emergency services.
In the early morning hours of June 22, just after the collapse in the town of Surfside, Florida, Charles Burkett, the town’s mayor, said, “We had dogs searching for survivors among the rubble right in the middle of the night. But it was so dangerous and so dark that they gave no leads. »
The dogs returned to the site full time, along with trained dogs searching for dead bodies, Grant Musser of Florida Task Force 2, one of South Florida’s rescue teams, told WPLG, a news outlet. local news.
Training dogs for such missions is a long, difficult and expensive process. Generally, it lasts between a year and a half and two years, at the end of which the dog and its master are ready for the missions.
The result is worth it. These dogs help save lives.
MAKE RESEARCH A GAME
There are different breeds of rescue dogs. They are trained to respond to various behaviors. Some look for human scents, such as breath or body odor, within a specific area. Like tracking dogs, they follow the trail of a missing person. Some have even been deployed on boats to help locate submerged human remains.
Dogs are trained in such a way that they see research as a game, with a reward. This game is a real challenge. “To detect humans, we sometimes train them from just a small tooth,” says dog handler Bev Peabody.
Ms. Peabody is a founding member of the California Rescue Dog Association, Inc. This volunteer-run organization is the largest rescue dog group in the United States. Positive reinforcement is key to keeping dogs excited about fetching, says Peabody.
“Usually, after a search where they find nothing, the next practice their task may last only ten minutes,” she explains. “We congratulate them and reward them, and it gives them enthusiasm. »
This technique is also used in the field. If a dog spends a whole day searching but finds nothing, its owner can afford to hire someone and let the dog track the person for a few minutes. Thus, he ends his day on a positive note and is rewarded.
Wild dogs are the pets of masters. So they show the same type of emotions and personality traits as other dogs. “After a find, we check the person’s physical and emotional conditions while the dog is allowed to play with their favorite toy,” Ms. Peabody continues.
These four-legged rescuers receive praise from their masters but also often from the people they have managed to locate. “People are always showing their gratitude to the dogs, and the dogs know they’ve done a good job. It’s a game for them and it’s serious for us. »
A SHARED GRATITUDE
The outcome of a search is more emotionally harsh when it leads to the discovery of human remains rather than a living person. “If there’s been a boating accident and someone drowned, it’s still game for the dog,” says Bev Peabody. “We’re not as enthusiastic but they still get their reward, their praise, and their ‘good dog’. »
Family members present when the human remains are found often establish a connection with the dog. “Almost every time they come and tell us, ‘I would love to pet your dog, thank him and tell him what a good dog he was for being able to find the person who is dear to me.’ Everyone cries, but they can move on because staying in the dark is not a good thing. »
Fortunately, many dog searches end well. “It was the Mexico City earthquake that led to the more common use of rescue dogs in disasters. I was there for five days and the dogs found eight people alive in the rubble. They raised the alarm in a parking tower that had collapsed and when [the rescuers] got the victims out, it was a grandfather and his grandson in a Volkswagen Beetle, alive. Mexicans showed their gratitude to dogs by showering them with treats. “They would have gained 30 pounds if we had let them,” adds Ms. Peabody.
After this powerful earthquake, the demand for dog rescue teams to search for victims of disasters and accidents skyrocketed. Shirley Hammond and Sunny, her Doberman, work with the US Federal Emergency Management Agency. When the federal authorities declare an area as a disaster area, they are sometimes called in to help rescuers. They were called to New York after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
“We found the body of a firefighter, a terrible discovery [for the dog]”, testifies Ms. Hammond. “Technically, Sunny is a search dog for living persons but since he couldn’t find any victims in this area, he pushed his search further in search of human remains. »
Rescue dogs are trained with positive reinforcement and receive rewards after a successful search. It is therefore difficult to find a balance with emotions when working on a claim. “When owners say their dogs are depressed, in reality [animals] pull that from their owner, right off the leash,” she explains.
But in the dismal atmosphere of Ground Zero, Sunny and other rescue dogs were able to lift the spirits of many rescuers.
“Sunny is a 43 kg male Doberman. The first time people saw it there, they kind of avoided it. But later he became something of an icon, and his work became almost as important as a therapy dog as a rescue dog. People would come up and say, “I was told it was Sunny. Can I pet him? They hugged him and he snuggled up to them. These people just needed that soft comforting feeling and it was the rescue dogs that gave it to them. »