Dogs from shelters learn lifesaving skills at Santa Paula campus
A lot of dogs end up in shelters because as they grow, the very traits that led people to buy them become less desirable, such as being hyper and wanting to play all day.
Fortunately, these traits are perfect for a search and rescue dog.
Since 1997, the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation has been rescuing and recruiting dogs to assist in responding to disasters.
It all started when Wilma Melville was deployed in response to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. After seeing the devastating aftermath of the bombing, Ms. Melville knew that there needed to be more highly trained response teams.
Today, SDF has 85 active search teams and has undergone over 200 deployments, such as responding to the catastrophic earthquakes in Turkey, where seven SDF-trained search dog teams assisted in searching the debris.
And locally, 18 SDF-trained search dog teams participated in searching the debris flow after the 2018 Montecito Mudslides.
The dogs are trained at a large Santa Paula campus, where the foundation is based. There the dogs are taught search-and-rescue skills in an environment similar to a movie studio backlot, with damaged buildings, rubble, even a trainwreck. And that’s where the News-Press saw the enthusiastic canines in action during a recent visit.
The general public will get to see the site during an open house, set for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 20. (See the FYI box.)
Although being hyper and wanting to play are great traits for being a search dog, those are not the only requirements — not to worry, dogs that choose to not continue with the program often find different careers, such as detecting drugs for the police. Two very important traits are having a keen sense of smell and having a very intense toy drive.
Needing a keen sense of smell is crucial to finding people hidden in rubble.
And the dogs are trained through a reward-based system. Hence the toys.
A handler will hide in the rubble with a tug toy, which serves as the reward. If the dog can find the handler and bark loudly, then the “good boy” or “good girl” gets to play with the toy.
Not only does the toy need to serve as a sufficient reward, but SDF wants the dogs to enjoy what they are doing. One dog, named Hawthorne, even had what SDF calls “happy tail.” Hawthorne had been wagging his tail too much at the rubble sight,so they placed tape around the tip of his tail to protect it from hitting against the rubble.
Denise Sanders, the senior director of communications and search team operations, told the News-Press that the dogs don’t realize they’re doing search and rescue. They’re just playing.
And instead of treating the dogs as tools, pets or employees, SDF views each canine as a valued colleague.
Ms. Sanders said human handlers face the challenge of learning how to work with the dogs as colleagues, which requires a deep understanding between the two team members. This can be difficult because many of the recruits are from shelters, so they have not had the best experience with connecting to humans.
The dogs need to learn that they are “good dogs” (perhaps even the “best dogs”), which makes the relationship between dog and handler even more important.
Like humans, all dogs have different learning styles and learning curves, so they do not all graduate at the same time, Ms. Sanders said. But training usually lasts eight to 12 months.
Then each dog will get paired up with a handler and move with them to wherever the handler’s task force is located.
Watching the search-dogs-in-training race across the rubble is an amazing sight, as the News-Press learned during its recent visit.
As soon as the dogs are brought out to the rubble, they are ready to go. You can see their bodies bouncing with excitement, and almost as soon as they are released, they go straight to the handler that is hiding in the rubble. And as they leave the rubble with their tug toys in their mouths, elation exudes from their faces.
Searching the rubble, however, is no easy task. Each dog undergoes a strict nutritional food plan and intensive strength and agility training.
Fun fact: When dogs jump, they only propel themselves from their front legs. Part of SDF’s training teaches dogs how to jump from both legs, making the search dogs even more agile and powerful, Ms. Sanders said.
For search and rescue training, SDF’s facilities are impressive. SDF has an underwater treadmill (it helps strengthen the hind legs) and various rubble piles of different disaster scenarios that the dogs can train on.
Some of the scenarios are a collapsed freeway, a trainwreck or a car park. These help the dogs get used to searching different environments while limiting the potential of new items distracting the dogs in a new environment.
The facility also allows SDF to practice wide area searches (up to around 145 acres).
However, training is not always oriented toward the dog but toward the human handler. Together they combine their superior traits. Dogs use their sense of smell. and the handlers must make sense of the situation. One way SDF tests this relationship is through a scent-tubing system that carries human scent into different locations.
SDF is the only facility that has this system.
Dogs are trained to go to the densest source of human scent, but the handlers must make sense of the scent. The tubing system that carries scent, purposefully draws the dogs to a location where there is no human hiding. Now there are lots of scenarios where the human may not be visible, but this scenario tests how the handler will respond. Do they trust their dog and reward him? Or do they try to force the dog to look somewhere else?
One thing that is obvious about the SDF staff is their passion for dogs. Ms. Sanders has worked with the SDF for 15 years, and said “It hasn’t gotten old yet.”
This passion extends from the handlers — Mandy Tisdale, Julia Kopan, Abby Leland,and Hanna Irwin — to SDF’s donors.
SDF is a nonprofit that does not accept any funding from the government, so they rely on people believing in their mission.
And it is an easy mission to get behind because when a disaster occurs, you can count on SDF-trained rescue teams to reinforce response efforts.