Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Life with search & rescue dogs
Interview by Sandra Parshall
My guest today is Rayanne Chamberlain, who works as a first responder with her local fire department and trains and works with search and rescue dogs.
As a member of a wilderness search team, she works an airscent dog, looking for missing people. She has been involved in about 200 missing persons searches, both as a dog handler and in other capacities, such as providing field support for canine teams and manning the base of operations.
Rayanne is also a member of the Michigan Urban Task Force (MI-TF1), working a disaster specialist dog, which searches for live victims in natural or man-made disasters. MI-TF1 is a state disaster response team, set up much like FEMA teams, but working under agreements for state-to-state assistance. For the past two years Rayanne has also been a member of OH-TF1 (Ohio Task Force One), a FEMA disaster response team.
She is now training her fourth disaster response dog and will soon retire her wilderness/airscent dog and begin training his understudy. All training is done on her own time, at her own expense. For disaster work, dog handlers are paid a daily rate when officially deployed. Wilderness work is always volunteer and unpaid. The wilderness search team Rayanne works with is financed by donations and the proceeds of fund-raising activities.
Q. How long have you been training and working with search and rescue dogs?
A. I've been a search and rescue dog handler for about 14 years.
Q. How did you get into this work? What are the qualifications?
A. Search and rescue is a volunteer activity in the US and most of the western world. The only qualifications are a desire to do the job and the commitment to spend hours every week honing your dog's skills and your own. I got into it about the time I turned 40. It was something I'd always wanted to do and I knew if I didn't do it then, I never would.
Q. Do you work with a single dog or several?
A. I currently have two dogs. One is a 92-year-old wilderness dog [Cota]. Wilderness dogs search for missing individuals B lost hunters, Alzheimer's patients, children. They will locate these people whether they are alive or deceased. My other dog is a 2-year-old disaster dog in training [Bristol]. The disaster dog specializes in locating only living persons who are inaccessible and often trapped under rubble.
Q. Does the dog you work with always live with you? Is he, or she, treated as a pet when not working?
A. Yes, my dogs always live with me and to a certain extent they are treated as pets when they are not working. Their daily lives are more regimented than the average pet, but they have a pretty good life. This is my personal preference. A lot of handlers maintain their dogs in kennel situations, bringing them out only to work. There are very good working dogs who live in both environments.
Q. What breed do you prefer to work with?
A. I have always worked Dobermans. They are considered a non-traditional breed for search work, although there is a network of Doberman handlers around the country. Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Border Collies and German Shepherds are the breeds most often seen in search work. All dogs have an excellent sense of smell, but very small breeds and giant breeds aren't usually found in search work.
Q. How often do you and your dog work? How do you keep the dog's skills sharp between jobs?
A. My older wilderness dog does not require daily training sessions although he enjoys every session and I train with him 2-3 times a week. My younger disaster dog gets some kind of work every day. The skills required for a disaster dog are many and in order to maintain a solid disaster dog, even an experienced dog must be worked 3-5 times per week.
Q. I've read novels that portrayed rescue dogs as feeling depressed or upset about failing to find people in time to save them. Is there any truth to this, or is it pure fiction?
A. There is no truth to this. For the dogs, this is a game -- like a dog that chases a Frisbee or a dog that participates in agility trials. As long as the dog receives his reward (usually a toy or food) upon completion of the job, he’s happy.
Q. What kind of situation are you usually called to work in? Would you tell us about some of the most memorable jobs you and your dogs have had?
A. I'm in Michigan, so we respond for quite a few drowning situations. Our other big call-out is for missing Alzheimer's patients. Probably my most memorable search happened 6 or 7 years ago when we were called in to search for 3 children (ages 3, 5 and 7). We arrived on scene about 8 p.m. and deployed our dogs. By 1 a.m. local law enforcement had decided that there was a good chance the children had been abducted. At 2 a.m. our teams located all three, still together. Their core body temperatures had dropped to 96 degrees, but after a quick visit to the local hospital for warming up they were as good as new -- although I have a feeling they are still grounded.
The disaster dogs probably train the hardest and get deployed the least often. They are deployed either by the state in which they live or through FEMA and only when a disaster occurs.
My wilderness dog utilizes his skills when searching for a missing person and when a building or a junkyard needs to be searched. Disaster dogs are trained in all types of environments so are comfortable searching in situations that might be dangerous for the wilderness dog.
Q. Is there a limit to the number of days or the number of hours in a day a dog can work on a job?
A. That is very dependent on the weather and the environment we're searching in. My wilderness dog and I have worked up to three days straight, 8 hours a day in the woods when the temperature has been moderate.
When it's hot and the sun is beating down on rubble, a disaster dog can effectively work 20-30 minutes.
Q. Rescue dogs are obviously trained to find people who are still alive. Can the dog tell the difference between a live person and one who has just died? Have you ever been on a search in which the "rescued" person proved to be dead?
A. Yes, dogs can tell the difference between people who are still breathing and those who have stopped. This is particularly important for the disaster dog that must ignore the odor of deceased individuals and focus solely on the scent emanating from those who are still alive. If you look at the devastation in Haiti earlier this year, if the dogs had not been trained to ignore the odor of the dead and focus on the living, many lives might not have been saved.
Unfortunately, I think two-thirds of our wilderness finds are of deceased individuals. Every time we head out for a search, we hope that the person will be found alive, but it is comforting to know that we've been able to bring closure to a family even when we find the person dead.
Q. The training of dogs to find live people must be very different from the training of cadaver dogs. Are you familiar with the way those animals are trained? Are they exposed to human cadavers?
A. Yes, I work closely with several human remains specialist handlers and canines. These dogs are trained more along the lines of drug dogs. They offer a passive alert (meaning they sit or lay down at the source of the odor). Everyone I work with trains only on real human material. The specialist dogs, though, also train on much older material. They help reconstruct old cemeteries, they work cold cases and they can locate very small pieces following events like plane crashes.
Q. When does a rescue dog usually retire? What happens to the dog then?
A. A search and rescue dog tells us when it needs to retire. Some retire when they are 6 years old; others continue working until they are 12 or 13. Arthritis and other health concerns usually influence their retirement. As long as dogs remain healthy, they love the search game and are unwilling to give it up. When they do retire, they live out their lives in comfort. With our team, even those dogs that have retired are set simple problems at training. The dogs are like the ex-baseball player reliving the glory days. To them, that person hidden behind a tree 100 feet away is as fulfilling as the person it took them 6 miles and 3 hours to find in the old days.