K-9 Corner: How search, rescue dogs are trained

Published 8:13 am Tuesday, May 1, 2018

In clearing my desk of accumulated papers, magazines and junk mail, I came across an issue of The Whole Dog Journal dated November 2017. Of course I had to stop and page through it and, of course, I found an article I would like to share with you.

The article concerns The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation that “trains handlers and dogs, places dogs on teams nationwide, and invites teams from all over the country to train at its state-of-the-art facility.” The title is “From Rescued to Rescuers” by Stephanie Colman.

The foundation is the brainchild of Wilma Melville who started it “when her retirement hobby as a civilian canine search-and-rescue handler took her to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in the wake of Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing in 1995.” Now note that she retired in 1995 and is still involved as her picture shows an elderly woman sitting on a hillside with her search dog. Does that make me feel lazy!

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After her experience in Oklahoma she concluded that there had to be a better way to develop qualified teams that met the FEMA standards and it took all of one year for Melville to start the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation.

One of the reasons I was so interested in this article is that they get their dogs from shelters and rescue groups. Evidently S&R dogs are special, not the everyday variety of personalities found at most shelters. These dogs need to be intense, very active and have a much higher motivation to work (from the human’s point of view) and play (from the dog’s point of view). That’s the focus of all the training these dogs get – it’s a game to them and they get a reward for finding what they are sent out to find. No food rewards for this crowd, they get to play tug with their handlers using one of their favorite toys.

The article covers the layout of the west coast’s training site, a 125-acre facility that provides challenges to the dog by providing rubble piles, old train cars placed to simulate a train wreck, a house built on a slant that might feel like a house damaged in an earthquake and many other disaster scenarios. There are training facilities on the east coast too. Interestingly those dogs trained in the east are especially adapt at searching buildings, whereas on the west coast abandoned buildings are usually occupied by the homeless. The west coast trained dogs work best in rubble piles, overturned locomotives and so forth which the east coast dogs do not have for training.

Most important for Kentucky shelters to know is that the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation is constantly on the watch for these intelligent, high spirited dogs in shelters and rescues and have a network of trained canine recruiters research and evaluate prospects from across the country. They accept 30 to 40 dogs a year and take them to the Foundation for further evaluation and training. Learn more about the NDSDF at www.searchdogfoundation.org.