First, Tales And Tails would like to ask that you keep our friends that are deployed within the Federal Emergency Management Agency System in your thoughts and prayers. Yesterday several of the FEMA Task Forces were deployed to begin heading down the Texas coast in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. This brings up a wonderful opportunity to discuss disaster dogs.
So Let’s Talk Dogs…
This discipline is really near and dear to my heart. So why is Küster not doing disaster work? I’ll get to that, but for now, let’s talk disaster dogs.
Disaster dogs are trained to find a human scent similar to the wilderness area search dogs which we talked about earlier. The main difference is that these dogs are trained to work in the context of a disaster. This could be debris piles from a community hit by a tornado, a collapsed structure, or possibly a mudslide for a few examples.
Disaster dogs are trained to work near a lot of noises such as machinery, and many people on the rubble as well. They will ignore all other odor except for that of live human scent which is coming through where they are working. These dogs are also trained to be comfortable working on uneven surfaces which can also be quite dangerous. To certify in disaster work our group follows the FEMA certification standards, which is a set of nationally recognized federal standards that are extremely rigorous.
So how do we get a dog up to these standards you ask?
Well, baby steps. Again as in everything we do the handler will start by thinking about puppies versus younger dogs. Once that decision is made it is all about drive and confidence. Drive and confidence, in my opinion, is really the core, the root, the foundation of everything in K9 search and rescue. Let’s take a minute to think about this. Does the dog you are training have the drive and confidence to work? Be it in the worst disaster ever or out trailing a missing four-year-old. Do you the handler have the drive to train constantly, consistently and the confidence to perform in the same conditions knowing people may make decisions on the information you are getting from your K9 partner? Please remember we are receiving our information from our K9 partner. This could be its own blog post so, I will stop there.
From there the handler will start playing the puppy games; playing chase, playing fetch, all things fun. Once the dog figures out the game, we start playing near or on the edge of areas where they might be working. Then the handlers will move to doing the games on rubble so they have to climb up and start thinking about where their feet are being placed. (Below is one of my favorite pictures of Küster and Buzz as puppies playing chase on a rubble pile).
Fast forward a little more and the puppies are taught to bark when they find a person. This starts with just making one bark, then moves toward the certification standard of staying with the found victim and barking until the handler gets to where the K-9 is indicating. Then again, as always, we start putting all the elements together. We add larger obstacles, different surfaces, old cars, trees, whatever we can to help our K-9 learn the job. Sometimes handlers will even live trap a squirrel and place the cage within the search area as a distraction.
While the handlers are training for the actual work they are also training their K-9 in elements of off leash obedience. Teaching the K-9 to go left, right, go away from the handler and the very important STOP. If you hear a K-9 handler discussing “directional work” this is what they are talking about. Part of the disaster dogs training also goes into being able to climb ladders and move cross raised beams. Once it is all put together and practiced over and over the K-9 and handler go as a team and try to certify. Whether they pass or not as in all the other disciplines many more hours of training are in their future.
To quickly answer why team Küster is not doing disaster, it comes down to the availability and access to these types of training areas. When I first started, these areas were very limited. In the past several years, circumstances have changed and good training areas have slowly become available. We will see what happens.