Animal Jobs Series: Rescue Dogs
Dogs have a long history of serving their human family faithfully as companion and guard dogs, but their lesser known role as rescuers dates nearly as far back. Today, rescue dogs save humans trapped in perilous conditions due to earthquakes, avalanches, other natural disasters or manmade destruction.
The National Search and Rescue Dog Association in the UK (NSARDA) identifies the dogs known today as Saint Bernards as the 'forerunners of modern search dogs'. Introduced in the 17th Century at a monastery and inn located at the summit of the Great St. Bernard Pass through the Western Alps, the dogs accompanied monks as companions and guides (due to their keen sense of direction) when searching for lost persons or avalanche victims in bad weather. The dogs gradually developed a talent to search for and aid in the recovery of lost persons, sometimes, according to legends, even with significant snow coverage over the victims.
As far back as the First World War, dogs were trained by the Red Cross to locate injured soldiers on the battlefield during breaks in the fighting. They were trained using human body scents that may be picked up in the air. A dog's sense of smell is over a thousand times more sensitive than humans' so dogs can pick up scents people never would.
By following a scent that is carried in the air, dogs are able to efficiently search very large areas. It is estimated that one dog can be the equivalent of 20 human searchers. Though a very low-tech approach, rescuers around the world still rely on dogs and their wonderful ability to sniff (and listen) and to harness those heightened senses into a life-saving tool.
Search and Rescue dogs represent a variety of breeds, the most common of which are German Shepherd Dogs, Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers. According to NSARDA (www.nsarda.org.uk) throughout the UK there are over 90 specially trained search and rescue dogs who, with their handlers, will respond to emergencies 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Search and rescue dogs are used to find missing hill walkers, missing vulnerable adults and children and, increasingly, to help the police find the victims of crime.
In addition to mountain rescue teams, there are also 13 UK Fire Service Urban Search and Rescue dog teams that respond to emergencies and disasters both at home and abroad. For instance teams were recently sent to Haiti and Indonesia. Run by the fire service in the UK, USAR teams are also on constant standby to travel anywhere they are needed at the drop of a hat.
Though their presence at an emergency scene arouses awe and gratitude, it is how these teams train when they are off duty that is truly impressive. Handlers must learn land navigation, map and compass, wilderness survival and other skills. Volunteers also act as 'bodies' during training session. They practice rigorously throughout their lives to keep those skills sharp.
For the handlers, it's a major commitment. For the dogs, it's a fantastic game of hide-and-seek, and they are trained to embrace a 'find' (when a victim is located) as a major reward. To become a search and rescue dog handler, it is necessary to already be involved and trained in mountain rescue with a search and rescue organisation so that you are familiar with the techniques involved, especially as the work is often dangerous. After a year, you can be put forward to train with a search and rescue dog. In the end, life and death sometimes comes down to a dog's miraculous ability to learn, love and play.
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