Sunday, March 26, 2006
Searched and RescuedMany people have heard of Search and Rescue dogs. Those noble canine souls who are trained to locate people that might otherwise not be detected after a disaster. Search and Rescue dogs have been used to find victims of hurricanes, floods, avalanches, earthquakes, building collapses, you name it. If people could be trapped and hard to find, a dog nose is still the best tool we humans have to detect them. Most of this is common knowledge.
What is less common is where these dogs come from and what makes them so good at this job. Search and Rescue dogs often come from shelters and they are, I promise you, the World's Biggest Buttheads.
Let me explain.
The secret behind Search and Rescue is that, from the dog's point of view, finding people is a sort of game. They are taught that every time they find someone, they're allowed to play a game of tug. Sometimes, such as in beginning practice, the "victim" actually has a tug toy tucked away and once discovered, leaps up and starts playing with the dog. Many Search and Rescue volunteers believe their dogs understand that what they're doing is more than an elaborate exercise, and it's entirely possible that they do. But, what these dogs were trained to work towards is the tug at the end of the tunnel.
Imagine the amount of toy drive it takes to make a dog good at this training. They're going to be swimming through flood waters or walking precariously through earthquake sites or digging their way through an avalanche all to get a chance to engage with their favorite toy. These dogs have exceptional levels of energy, perseverence, and fortitude. It's necessary for the job. But, it also means in normal situations, these dogs are way more than the average owner can handle. They are, in fact, more than the experienced owner can handle. These are the dogs that shred entire rooms while you're gone, jump up on guests non-stop, and drag the kids around the house by their sweatshirts. Without a means to focus all of that energy and smarts, they're awful, awful dogs. Unsurprisingly, they tend to end up in shelters between the ages of six months and two years.
Once in the system, these dogs are extremely hard to place. Their energy and brains work against them. We have such a dog at the East Bay SPCA right now. Intelligent. Pushy. Loves toys. You can take a stuffed animal and toss it 30 feet away into a cluster of ivy, spin this dog in a circle five times, put him through a round of obedience and when you release him, he makes a b-line for the ivy and sniffs out his toy. He's also jumped and mouthed so many volunteers than no one will walk him any more. He's put several trainers at their wits' end trying to control him. We've tried him on every tool we know of and he's still horrifyingly rude. He's been in our shelter for eight months. Is he aggressive? No. Is he a dog anyone would want in their home? Absolutely not. So we're contacting a local Search and Rescue chapter and asking them to evaluate this dog to see if he qualifies for the program. Nobody else is going to want him. We've placed several dogs with the Search and Rescue program and they've all been this way.
I suppose what I find so fitting is that the dogs who devote their lives to finding and saving people have to be found and saved themselves.