Disaster Dog Realities

Packed up for the next road trip to training. 

Packed up for the next road trip to training. 

Driving across the countryside to another training location. Thinking about the thousands of miles we’ve traveled. The thousands of hours we’ve traveled. The hundreds of hours of sleep lost. The tens of thousands of dollars we’ve spent. The hundreds of vacation hours we’ve used. The freezing temperatures, the roasting temperatures, the pouring rain, the unforgiving winds. The bumps and bruises, scrapes and scratches. Portable toilets and beat up vehicle interiors. Failed obedience through airport security lines. No poop bags in the hotel lobby. The frustrating training sessions. The rest stops and mini mart meals. Coolers of melted ice. Frozen water bowls. The cold coffee. The motel rooms, and naps in the car. 

It’s not surprising that the most common question from the public, is interestingly the question I always feel uncomfortable answering for some reason. “How many people has your dog found?”

Search Dog Ben during a training search in Southern California

Search Dog Ben during a training search in Southern California

My answer is often “well…hundreds. He finds people every week (in training)”. They always give me the same, look of surprise, followed by a gentle smile. Of course, I realize that this is not what they were asking. They want to hear about how many lives were saved by the efforts of the dog. They want to hear heroic stories of how our dogs braved the treacherous rubble of a collapsed structure(s), risking life and limb, and brought rescuers to a buried survivor trapped for hours or days, waiting to be saved. These stories are incredible and inspiring, and some handlers have these life saving stories to tell firsthand. For many Live Find Disaster search dog teams, the answer is often, none. The fact is, most disaster live find canine teams will go their entire career, and never find a single survivor. Some disaster dogs will never even get out the door on an official mission. It has nothing to do with their skill, or level of training. That’s just the nature of disaster work. Disasters are (luckily) few and far between, and only a few teams are called to each disaster. 

"Little Dude" at training in Maryland

"Little Dude" at training in Maryland

The reality is that most handlers know this as they start their journey in disaster K9 search and rescue. As we travel the country and meet all of the incredible disaster canine teams and trainers, I often think about what makes so many people willing to sacrifice such a huge chunk of their lives for something that may never ultimately come to fruition. 

I can’t answer for everyone. We all have our reasons. For us, it started with a passion for dogs, and then the chance to make a difference in someone’s life. As the time passes, for some of us it turns into something different. It doesn’t define us entirely, but becomes deeply a part of who we are. Part of our purpose. It is no longer about us and what our single dog can do. It becomes about every dog. We don’t know which dog will be in that right place at the right time when disaster strikes, so every dog is vital to the mission of finding disaster survivors. It has been said before, “it takes a village”. Everyone that touches our dogs’ lives and the lives of any other disaster dog becomes a part of their journey. As a community of disaster dog trainers and handlers, we get to help each other, and be a part of every dog’s journey. In contrast, every dog we touch teaches us something we can pass to the next dog. Each dog’s successes can be attributed to the entire community. This is what drives some of us to continue.

As I write this, I think of how I may answer the question differently next time. 

Directional training at a rest stop somewhere in Pennsylvania

Directional training at a rest stop somewhere in Pennsylvania

In the meantime, the four wheels are rolling down the highway, wet with rain. The crate doors are rattling. My cold coffee is almost gone and there’s some melted ice and home made sandwiches in the cooler. The puppy is chewing his Kong. The others are fast asleep, but will jump up as soon as the van slows down the offramp to the next rest stop.

Stay safe. Train hard. Someone’s life may depend on it. ~TD