search dog

It Takes a Village: Raising the Disaster Search Dog

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Eric and I attended our first K9 search and rescue training a few months after September 11, 2001. We both had a lifelong love for dogs, and like so many others, were inspired to action by watching and learning about the rescue and recovery efforts by so many in the days/weeks/months following that tragic day. We would later realize how much this “hobby” of training search dogs would teach us about hard work, dedication, the human-animal bond, and the power of community.

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No one will say that training a disaster search dog to the top federal certification level is easy. It takes thousands of hours of training, thousands of miles of traveling, early mornings, long days, lots of time away from family, and we can’t forget to mention the out-of-pocket expenses. Some dogs make the grade, and some dogs don’t. Some handlers succeed, and others fail. One thing we have learned, is that with disaster search dogs, success cannot be achieved alone. We’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to be a part of the journeys of countless dogs over the years and each encounter has been a lesson about community. 

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You see, when you are training disaster dogs, it is all about drive. If the dog doesn’t want to do it they won’t, and it is up to us to build and maintain this drive at every training. Every interaction with a search dog determines its desire to search the next time, so we rely on each other as “victims/decoys/survivors”, to build on the last experience. Getting in “the hole” is equally an incredible opportunity and great privilege, but also a responsibility that comes with tremendous pressure. A successful session can build a dog up, but an unsuccessful session can knock back a dog’s training several weeks. 

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Having a new puppy in training is really bringing this concept to light for us and we are forever grateful for all the folks in the disaster search community who are always so eager to help build drive in each other’s dogs. There’s nothing more gratifying than seeing the anticipation in a dog’s body when he’s demanding the reward to appear. The icing on the cake is the verbal reward that accompanies the toy presentation. The more ridiculous the better, in our opinion. Here’s a great example of a successful alert and reward session:

We’d like to celebrate all of the dedicated folks willing and eager to get in “the hole” to improve the level of training of disaster dogs everywhere. Your perfectly timed enthusiasm may seem ridiculous and over-the-top, but just may save someone’s life someday. Thank you.

Sudden Lameness in a Working Dog: Searching for the Cause

The sudden onset of lameness in a working dog is surely enough to make a canine handler’s heart skip a beat. I know this because it happened to us today with 7 year old Disaster SearchDog Ben after a morning of agility, directional training, and rubble search. He just turned 7, and Eric and I work hard to keep him fit to avoid injury. 

We finished our morning with a short, two person search on a small rubble pile. Ben performed his usual acrobatics on the pile, leaping around fearlessly, and flawlessly. He was paid promptly with a few tugs and he did his victory lap with the toy on the way back to the truck. That’s when I noticed a very slight lameness of the left hind leg.

I performed a thorough musculoskeletal evaluation. I palpated each joint, putting them all through their full range of motion. I squeezed every toenail, looking for a cracked one (which is Ben’s specialty), and looked in between each toe, looking for a puncture (above is the photo of his paw). I probed each muscle belly in the affected limb, looking for a clue. No signs of pain, heat, or swelling, but he was still having an intermittent, mild decrease in weight bearing on his left hind leg (we’d call this a grade 0-1 out of 4 lameness).

Getting ready to pass it off as a soft tissue strain, I noticed him licking his left hind foot (his usual M.O. when he’s cracked a nail) and so I investigated further. Squeezing each toenail, spreading the toes….again. Then, there it was…a superficial abrasion of the metacarpal pad, the weight bearing, and shock absorbing portion of the hind limb. 

These abrasions are often seen as small flaps of paw pad tissue, and are often difficult to identify when the surface area of the abrasion is very small, and the small flap is still covering the wound. More severe abrasions can involve the entire paw pad, several paw pads, or multiple limbs. The rough, superficial tissue of the paw pad is a very specialized material designed to protect the sensitive and fragile epidermis that lies underneath. When the protective pad is worn away, the epidermis is exposed, causing discomfort when bearing weight.

The good news is, with superficial abrasions like this, the treatment is to keep it clean, and rest while it heals (and, in case you didn’t know…rest is a working canine team’s nemesis). A more severe abrasion (such as when the entire epidermis is abraded) might require more intensive veterinary care which may include bandaging, foot soaks, or even surgical debridement. Of course, always seek veterinary advice when treating things like this. 

Prevention? Well, That can be hard for a working dog. In my experience, these abrasions often happen after intense tugging, or retrieving on rough surfaces, such as asphalt, or gravel. The repetitive skidding of the paw pad against the ground causes loss of the superficial protective tissues. Limiting these activities when possible may help to prevent injuries like this.

Thanks for reading. Now….. off to tell Ben about the prescribed REST. Wish me luck!

Cadaver Dog Locates Last Remaining Victim of Train Crash

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Superfit Canine’s very own Golden Retriever Wyatt and handler Eric Darling were deployed and tasked with locating the remains of victims of the Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia this past Tuesday. Along with teammate Labrador Retriever Pacy, a human remains detection K9 trained by handler Pat Kaynaroglu of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, the dogs searched tirelessly throughout the night. Wyatt located the last remaining victim on Thursday morning.

Disaster search dogs and their handlers train for thousands of hours and travel thousands of miles all over the country to simulated disaster sites. All to ensure that the dogs are prepared for whatever terrain or environment that they may be faced with during a disaster. 

Their goal? Everybody comes home.

Photos are of K9 Wyatt taken at a simulated disaster training site. See more photos at superfitcanine.com

There are lots of ways to improve the fitness and conditioning of athletic and working dogs. This example is of the underwater treadmill (UWTM). The UWTM offers the cardiovascular benefits of the traditional land treadmill, but adds in the resistance of water to strengthen muscles and buoyancy to reduce the stress that gravity can put on joints during exercise. In addition to conditioning healthy dogs, it is used for the rehabilitation of injured or arthritic dogs. In this short video, Search and Rescue Dog Ben gets some exercise in the UWTM. 

This beautiful young Labrador called Pacy is a disaster human remains detection dog in training. Disaster search dogs are required to climb over all kinds of debris and rubble such as after a building collapse. This type of work requires that dogs have incredible strength and agility to avoid being injured. In this photo she demonstrates an exercise called “chipmunk” which she does regularly as part of a core strengthening program.

This beautiful young Labrador called Pacy is a disaster human remains detection dog in training. Disaster search dogs are required to climb over all kinds of debris and rubble such as after a building collapse. This type of work requires that dogs have incredible strength and agility to avoid being injured. In this photo she demonstrates an exercise called “chipmunk” which she does regularly as part of a core strengthening program.