i’m going to tell you about a wonderful dog

I was reading in my local paper today about how the county sheriff’s rescue team was out in Luisiana now, helping to find survivors and victims of the hurricane. I recognized many of the names and some of the dogs. Although, unfortunately not all, because turnover in canine search and rescue can be unfortunately short. Because our dogs don’t live long enough. I mean this in general; not that SAR dogs have a shorter life span than other dogs.

Over thirteen years ago my then husband and I got a little chocolate puppy who we trained to be a search and rescue dog. She was trained (by myself) and handled (by my ex) as a disaster and cadaver dog. We did actually work with FEMA in the early to mid 90’s when FEMA was putting together disaster dog certification. (Bit of politicking there among SAR groups, each of which felt that their local tests should be adopted by FEMA, but I won’t get into that.) She was a wonderful trooper, always working hard, always trying again and again, always doing her best to do whatever we asked of her. She worked on a number of cases, often individual missing persons, but also in mudslide areas and other much smaller scale disasters. If Katrina had happened any time before she retired at age 9, she would have been out there.

I had people ask me many times, wasn’t it a terribly depressing job? It is and it isn’t. Of course if you find the person alive, it’s wonderful. There’s nothing to match that feeling. At the same time, finding a body can be more rewarding than you expect. Families are often much happier to know for certain. Or else they’re already sure the person is gone, but now they have a body, they can have a burial and a proper memorial. If the person was a victim of foul play, you now often have much more forensic evidence to nail the person who did it (well not as much as I’d like, but still) — there’s the satisfaction that the person didn’t quite get away with it as cleanly as he might have thought. So the sense of closure is very important, more often than the general public realizes.

And on the subject of general public, her other major functions were in the “dog and pony” shows. I mean this literally: the mounted police and the K9 units, and the SAR units would go out on PR outings, educating the general public about the work that these people do. Many children are afraid of the horses and of the police K9’s (who can be a little twitchy, or else people are just cautious of German Shepherds, Dobes, etc), but who would run right up to this friendly chocolate lab and hug her. We’d do these little obedience “shows”, just to show off some of the things she could do. I always thought it was funny that the things that were the hardest to teach her (run out and then turn and sit on a whistle, for example) never really impressed people, but the easiest things to teach got them all ooh-ing and ah-ing, like a down stay in front of me. She loved these outings as well, because there were plenty of ice cream and candy smeared toddler faces for her to clean off. I swear she learned to check out strollers as prime treat territory.

But in all, it’s a long hard job. You spend many hours training, and you really can’t train alone, so you have to have a group of people to work with on a regular basis. At the same time, you need a number of different “victims” so that the dog doesn’t think the “game” is to find a particular set of people. You need many different places, so the dog doesn’t play the “game” only in one area. I spent almost more time devising and planning training scenarios than in actually enacting them.

We also worked with the county level disaster plans, including mockups and drills. These are very important, because it helps people figure out what the chain of command will be, who they need to talk to for information and such. I see several problems in Luisiana that our drills don’t cover, though, such as when communications fail — either too many people on the line, or no power, and so on. If I were still in this line of volunteer work (and I believe I will return to it later in my life when I have more free time, but we shall see), I think I’d be pushing for planning around these kind of scenarios. We’re in earthquake and fire country after all. Not to mention mudslidings. Fortunately in this part of the state, flooding isn’t a large scale problem, though up in Sacramento and areas there, it is (and no one thinks about that, it’s all earthquakes earthquakes, etc. Yikes.)

Anyway, my beloved dog died earlier this year, at thirteen (and two weeks) of age. She was always a special dog, I’ve had a number of dogs in my life, and none of them were quite like her. I am convinced she understood her job. I’m dead certain that’s why she always did her best and always went back out again every time we asked. Happening across that article in today’s paper has me remembering all the good times with her again. I miss her terribly.

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