Disaster search dogs

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Disaster search dogs have become vital lifesavers across the world since their introduction during the middle of the 20th century. They deserve our admiration for the calculated risks they take in saving hundreds of lives every year in all sorts of disaster situation.

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A vital lifeline

Dogs are used in a vast array of search and rescue situations, including landslides, collapsed and burnt-out buildings, caved-in mines and rail and air accidents. Unfortunately these situations are only too common.

Devices that can pick up very weak noises such as heartbeats are also used on these missions, but they need to be employed in total silence, which is a scarce luxury in clearing operations.

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Since the Second World War

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Dogs were first used in disaster search operations in Great Britain during the Second World War Blitz.

The Americans, Germans and Swiss followed the British lead, opening dog-training centres in the mid-fifties. Swiss dogs were first used in an international operation during the 1976 Friuli earthquake in Italy, where 12 dogs managed to find 42 survivors and 510 bodies.

A year later in Vrancea, Romania, 10 dogs found 15 survivors and 97 bodies.

A French contingent of disaster search dogs found 10 survivors and 500 bodies in El Asnam, Algeria in 1980. Dogs have recently been used in places as far apart as Mexico and Iran in response to major earthquakes.

Through the years, these animals have saved several hundred victims.

© Diffomédia/Royal Canin

Properly trained dogs, on the other hand, can work at any location alongside rescue workers and noisy clearing equipment, such as cranes, drills and bulldozers.
They can also find dead bodies, which they mark in a different way to survivors, allowing rescue teams to prioritise saving lives.

Professionals agree that dogs are vital in any type of disaster search situation.

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Teamwork

© Diffomédia/Royal Canin
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The dog has to trust its handler completely because it needs to be willing to
follow wherever the handler goes, regardless of how difficult the terrain.

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As in all situations where canines and humans work together, there must be a strong bond between handler and dog. The handler has to have a very good understanding of the dog and an impressive ability to read its behaviour as it searches the rubble so he or she can anticipate its reactions at all times. The dog, on the other hand, has to trust its handler completely because it needs to be willing to follow wherever the handler goes, regardless of how difficult the terrain.

Such a degree of teamwork demands a lot of training. After familiarisation and basic training, the team focuses on actual search work, using various techniques.

Generally speaking, the handler relies on the dog’s attachment to him or her and its enthusiasm for a particular object, such as a toy or a ball. The handler hides with this object and the dog has the task of finding him or her and marking the spot by barking and scratching the ground. The dog’s enthusiasm for the object helps drive it to develop this marking behaviour, which is an essential part of disaster search work. First one, then several strangers gradually replace the handler as the dog becomes better at the game.

When the dog is able to find several victims that hide out of its view it is certified in accordance with the rules and regulations of its home country. Handler and dog are then registered as a civilian or military disaster rescue dog team in that country.

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© Diffomédia/Royal Canin

Selecting the right dogs

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An outstanding sense of smell is essential in disaster search dogs, which also have to be calm, well balanced and full of energy.

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An outstanding sense of smell is essential in disaster search dogs, which also have to be calm, well balanced and full of energy. They have to be sociable with humans and other dogs, as they will often work in the vicinity of other dog teams. They need to enjoy playing too, if training is to be a success.

Sheepdogs are used most often, especially German and Belgian Shepherd Dogs. Pyrenean Sheepdogs, Dobermanns, Beaucerons and Labradors have also shown themselves to be well up to the task.

This is a tough, stressful job for dogs, which have to learn to work in what is often a highly hostile and dangerous environment, so daily training is important.

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Can any dog work in search and rescue?

Trainers have their preferred breeds, but various guard and protection breeds – including sheepdogs, terriers and even mongrels – can be trained to work in search and rescue. Just like humans, dogs have particular character traits (as individuals) and general character traits (as a society/pack). When we identify these variables in dogs we can say that all dogs have the potential to be trained to work in search and rescue, but only some of them have the individual character traits needed in this type of operation and the ability to employ them at the highest level.

The search and rescue dog is exceptionally attentive, has a great capacity to concentrate, a very well developed hunting/playing instinct (finding a toy) and has a very well developed sense of smell combined with an intense desire to sniff. Good health, docility, boldness, confidence and obedience are other essential character traits in a dog that is expected to explore hilly and mountainous areas, in bad weather, surrounded by the noise and activity of heavy machinery and people. The dog must also be emotionally balanced when travelling by air, water or abseiling.

Maganin

Aristides Maganin Junior
1st Veterinary Lieutenant MP
Military Police, State of Sao Paulo –
Central Veterinary Kennels Department
(Brazil)

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