On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 earthquake hit the capital city of the poorest county in the Western Hemisphere, dumping 19 million cubic yards of rubble and debris on Port au Prince, Haiti, and its people.
Two-year-old German shepherd Racker, of Eastport, rushed to the disaster, along with search-and-rescue dogs from France and Mexico.
Racker worked at night over deep voids traversing a bridge made from a wrought-iron scroll fence. Search-and-rescue dogs like him maneuver across collapsed structures, through piles of twisted metal, crushed cement and stone shards, navigating dangerous and unstable surfaces amidst turmoil.
Ignoring their eyes and ears, rescue dogs sniff and search an invisible, inaccessible live human scent. Often, what a dog doesn’t find is as important as what it does, as once a dog clears an area, the searchers can move on.
Hours after Japan’s March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, Racker went to work again.
In Prince George’s County’s June 29 paper warehouse collapse, Racker and his young colleague Ventoux sat on the sidelines: All but one worker escaped the avalanche, and that recovery took cadaver dogs.
Disaster rescues are all in a day’s work for Elizabeth Kreitler and Racker who, with Elizabeth Chaney and Ventoux of Perfect Pet Resort in Lothian, are two of 13 dog-human couples who make up the Virginia Task Force 1 Team, which responds to disasters worldwide.
Urban search-and-rescue dogs like Racker and Ventoux have one goal: finding people trapped alive under collapsed structures. Their success is a win-win situation for both the dog and the handler. For the dog, a toy and a game of tug rewards a job well done. For the handler: A lost person is found.
The Right Stuff
Success in this tough job begins before the dog is born. Genetics drives these dogs. Belgian malinois like Ventoux, border collies, German shepherds like Racker, golden and Labrador retrievers have the agility, athleticism and minds for the job.
These working dogs retain an in-born prey drive — a strong desire for the chase, hunt and grab-bite, part of the genetic motor pattern inherited from wolves. Handlers like Kreitler redirect those genetic instincts to jobs in narcotics, bomb sniffing and search and rescue.
“To bark at a live invisible scent and get a reward is a piece of cake to the dog,” Kreitler says.
|Elizabeth Kreitler and Racker.|
Not every dog rises to the demand. Disaster dogs need exceptionally high drive. Shaping in puppyhood builds on the strengths that breeding brings.
“You’ve got to instill that boldness and confidence that they own the world initially,” Kreitler says. “We can’t squelch any of his drive, whatever amount is in him, by putting control on a puppy, because you’ll never get it back out.”
If a puppy knocks over the trash, fine. Independence, pushiness and curiosity are good qualities for a good rescue dog.
So is obedience, and achieving the right balance takes about two years. During job grooming, the dog lives under strict control.
“Until the dog understands that his life is one of a job,” Racker’s partner says, “you can’t treat them like household pets because that becomes the way they look at life.”
Many live in a crate or kennel throughout training. Crate training establishes a work ethic. “Every time they come out of the crate, they need to think they’re going to work,” Kreitler says.
Their walks are regimented. During search work, these dogs must adhere to a strict schedule including set times for relieving themselves: the beginning and the end.
“They can’t stop and smell the roses when searching,” Kreitler says. “So you can’t allow it even when they’re a young dog going for a walk because then it becomes a habit.”
Out of 100, maybe one or two make the cut to urban search-and-rescue dog. Hundreds of miles, thousands of dollars and countless hours of training stand behind such pros.
Job training begins with pulling out the prey drive and promoting the game. The reward for hard work is a toy and a game of tug. In an elaborate game of hide and seek, handlers run from the dog and hide with the toy. When the dog finds them, playing together is the reward.
“They want the active toy and the game. Dogs don’t want a dead toy. The reward is not the tug, but the game itself,” Kreitler says.
By the time the dog is on a real search, he’s willingly looking for trapped survivors.
“A canine in prey drive has higher pain tolerance, more endurance and greater single-mindedness and that’s the attitude we need a canine to take to rubble search work,” Kreitler says.
“Dogs work a rough course,” Kreitler explains. Each site is like a new dog park, an invitation for exploration.
Exercises and apparatus help prepare them for the job ahead.
Jump-ups work their rear end for strength. Platforms similar to baseball diamonds with bases 25 yards apart are used for direction work. Go-through tunnels with right angles prepare dogs for tunnel vision. Teetering practice on wobbly surfaces, like seesaws, ensures stability and patience. Bark barrels, concealing a person inside, reinforce a dog’s scent reliability.
On the road to certification, dogs are tested on each skill plus obedience, down-stay and agility.
The goal, Kreitler says, is for the dog to “have that give-me attitude when you ask them to search after many stressful hours of travel and deprivation of food and water.”
A Girl and Her Dog
|Ventoux and owner Elizabeth Chaney.|
Like Racker, Kreitler is pretty Type A. A corporate advertising executive for Time magazine, she retired to full-time dog handling.
She’d had dogs as pets, and she’d taught scuba diving to people, but search and rescue was a leap of faith.
After deciding a German shepherd was the dog for the job, Kreitler bought Racker sight unseen at 10 months. Racker was a green dog, untrained but with a strong drive.
He confirmed her faith when she put him to the test.
“Racker just saw me on the rubble and said okay where is she going?” Kreitler recalls. “I could tell by the way he moved, he had a ton of drive.”
Search-and-rescue teams train endlessly for a call that may never come. Chaney’s dog Ventoux, the youngest on the team and newly certified, is still awaiting his first assignment. But with life and death in the balance, success depends on being ready.
Everyday dogs can see how the other half lives at Basic Foundation and Agility Classes at Perfect Pet Resort: 410-741-0000; www.perfectpetresort.com.