Fido Finds: From rescued dogs to dogs as rescuers

Future search and rescue dog Fletch, along with Brent Brainard, Nick DeMarco, and Jan Peterson

By Carol Bryant, FIDO Friendly magazine

Once rescued, the dog will never need to be rescued again. Imagine a world where every dog saved from a shelter lives that outcome. For the canines involved in the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF), a forever home is a guarantee. And the expertise and training of these dog heroes by SDF guarantees that live bodies are found in the urban rubble of collapsedbuildings, train wrecks or any place a person might be buried.

Meet Fletch, black Labrador Retriever mix and a potential candidate for search dog status. Fletch turned up at the McPaws Animal Shelter in McCall, Idaho. Although his second stay in the shelter, the local canine recruiter recognized search dog candidacy in this mega-ball of energy mutt. As Search Dog Foundation canine recruiters Jan Peterson and Nick DeMarco approached his kennel with a toy, Fletch went into overdrive.

Peterson explained, “We are looking for workaholic dogs with an intense toy drive. These dogs are usually very driven and a bit ‘crazy,’ which does not usually make for a good pet dog. Many families cannot handle these dogs and many of them end up in shelters.” Fletch returned to her Boise home with the recruiters where further testing was conducted. Peterson recalled, “We found that he would even climb a tree to get to the toy.” Talk about the drive to succeed.

So how does a toy-driven Lab become a national search dog? Fletch spent time in Gilroy,California, for further assessment and hands-on training for close to a year. Jan and Nick visited Fletch at the facility and watched as he searched for live humans in piles of rubbleand wooden pallets. “After their training, they are assigned to a fire fighter with a Task Force.

They live with the fire fighter 24-7. Fletch was assigned to Brent Brainard in San Diego,California, and CTF-3. “The two of them then continued training for another year at which time they became FEMA certified,” Peterson reported.

A day in the life of a search and rescue dog is busy and diverse. Dogs live with their handler, going almost everywhere with them, including learning to live at the fire station. DeMarco said, “The handlers continue training with the dogs in rubble piles several times per month aslong as the dogs are in service. Once FEMA certified they must be ready to deploy anywhere in the world with very short notice. Recent deployments included several train derailments, Hurricane Katrina, Haiti and the gas explosion in San Bruno, California.”

SDF was founded by a retired schoolteacher, Wilma Melville, in 1996. After she and her FEMA-certified search dog were deployed to the Oklahoma City bombing, the shortage of canine disaster teams was evident to Melville. From there, the program was born.

Disaster search dogs must be able to crawl through tunnels, walk up and down ladders, walk over and on debrisand wobbly surfaces and stop to wait for hand signals from handlers. “Idaho did not have anyBark Force representatives, so the founder of National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, Wilma Melville, sent the Canine Recruiter to Idaho to teach us how to look for these special dogs in local shelters,” DeMarco reported.

A National Training Center is being created by SDF as a one-of-a-kind US facility. Canine recruitment and training will come together for training and disaster simulation. Scheduled to open in 2012, rest assured that Fletch and hundreds of other dogs like him are ready for the callto duty at a moment’s notice. And once rescued, the dogs will never need to be rescued again and will get the satisfaction of becoming rescuers themselves.

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