In the event of a disaster, there are many types of heroes—firefighters, doctors, police officers—but we often forget about a certain breed of first responder. Deep in a Southern California canyon, the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation is training dogs to brave the rubble and search for survivors in the midst of mass devastation.
The 125-acre training facility in Santa Paula is equipped with a direction and control field for hand signal drills, a fitness and conditioning center built for agility training and rehabilitation, and a pavilion just for socializing. As Director of Communications Denise Sanders will remind you, “They need to be dogs!” An in-house canine care team also ensures that the dogs’ hair and nails are cut to a safe and comfortable length for clamoring over the seven different disaster scenario sets, strategically designed by structural engineers.
A dog never forgets—“Especially the border collies. They take notes, I swear,” Denise said. It is important that they are learning new things instead of memorizing the “hides.” These are spots used in training where volunteers will hide in barrels with the search dog’s favorite toy. When the trainee succeeds, he is rewarded with the toy, because after all, it is still a game to them.
The rubble pile, the collapsed freeway, and train wreck can all be manipulated to imitate different types of disaster scenarios so that handlers don’t have to search cross-country for new training sites. There is another special spot on campus called Search City. Here, engineers constructed multiple facades and a building with an unleveled foundation to represent a potential urban scenario. There is even a convenience store in Search City to train the dogs not to get distracted by otherwise enticing scents
The dogs are taught how to navigate different types of building collapses containing various building materials and caused by natural disasters unique to their geography. “In disasters like the 2010 Haiti and 2015 Nepal earthquakes, we learned that structures collapse differently in different places,” Denise said. There are 28 FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) -certified task forces across the country, meaning their teams can be deployed by the government to respond to a disaster anywhere in the US. Two of those 28 task forces are also internationally deployable and have traveled to places such as Nepal, Japan and Haiti in the wake of recent calamity.
The foundation recruits its wagging workforce largely from shelters, which sets it apart from similar organizations. “A lot of these dogs are on the euthanasia or unadoptable list for the same traits that we look for,” Denise said. While they don’t tolerate aggression, canine recruiters look for dogs with high energy and intense drive. By the time they’re certified, they have to be able to maintain laser focus amidst chaos and alert first responders to the location of survivors in a short amount of time.
Each new canine recruit is given eight to ten months of NDSDF training before being paired with a handler, who may be a firefighter or other type of first responder. Then, the new partners can begin the rigorous process of search dog certification. As a token of appreciation, the foundation provides its four-legged heroes with lifetime medical care, and the dogs often continue living with their handlers after retirement.