The Search Dog Foundation – Dogs that Save People After Disaster

November 20, 2018 The Dogist
Koda of the Search Dog Foundation during a training exercise

These dogs are trained to find people trapped alive in the wreckage following disasters – earthquakes, building collapse, mudslides, etc. The program was developed after the the Oklahoma City bombing due to a severe shortage of Canine Disaster Search Teams in the country. SDF gained recognition after the World Trade Center disaster, when 13 SDF teams were deployed to search the rubble of Ground Zero.

They’re trained on live find versus HRD (Human Remains Detection) – they locate and indicate with a bark alert on inaccessible live human scent. They’re ‘air scenters’ (not tracking dogs) and have a remarkable sense of smell. When a person walks into a building, they can tell that someone is cooking soup – the dog can tell which ingredients are in the soup.

We teach them bark equals toy. They think the person hiding has their toy, so they bark at them until they give them their toy. A majority of our dogs are from shelters and often were on the euthanasia list – Labs, Shepherds, Malinois, Pointers, Border Collies – rescue dogs that have high drive, are fearless, and bold. If you leave them in the house they’ll be an interior decorator or a landscape architect. Even if they don’t make it through our program, they’ll never end up in a shelter again. The Haiti Task Force helped bring 13 people to safety, but it’s not usually some 'Hollywood hero ending,' it’s about knowing that nobody is left behind alive. It helps people’s families with closure. It also brings a morale boost to the crews themselves. They do a lot more than just search.

Victor, a hound mix, was part of a criminal case; his owner went away for life. He loves doing his job as long as there’s a toy involved. Pictured above with his handler Firefighter William Walkenhorst. There are currently 69 active SDF teams and 30 that are retired (most of the time they become the firefighter’s pets upon retirement).

The dogs are ‘front wheel drive’ when they come in and have to learn to use all of their paws.

Ace, the Belgian Malinois, was maced and tied to a railroad to track and left to die. He wouldn’t stop barking so people wired his mouth shut and left him. He has scars on his face.

They come from really horrendous backgrounds sometimes. Some dogs won’t even make eye contact when they come in after being abused by humans.

Each dog is specialized during a search – one dog is ‘live bark’ and one is ‘deceased bark’. We only train our dogs for live find.

It’s been a challenging week as a Californian but we are lucky to so far be unaffected directly by the fires. Some of our firefighter-handlers have responded with their fire departments on strike teams to combat the fires in Northern and Southern California but none of our dogs have deployed and likely won’t because a fire is too hot for our dogs and it is rare to find survivors in the wake of a fire. Human Remains Detection (HRD) dogs, which SDF does not train, could be used in the future once the flames have been extinguished and the areas have cooled to search for the hundreds of people still missing.” (UPDATE: Two SDF-trained Canine Disaster Search Teams, Alex Mengell & Gunner (Alameda County Fire Department) and Doug Van Iwaarden & Sadie (Orange County Fire Authority) have deployed alongside their task force teammates to assist in the wake of the #CampFire in Northern California.)

They were just deployed - to see them in action, check it out here.

To learn more and support this organization check out their website.

Additionally, to support rescue efforts underway in California, please visit these accredited pages:


DONATE: Los Angeles County Animal Care Foundation or North Valley Animal Disaster Group
VOLUNTEER: Humane Society of Ventura County
FOSTER: Mae Day Rescue

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