Four-legged heroes: this is how we sometimes hear people referring to search and rescue dogs, because in emergency situations, such as when an earthquake happens, these dogs play a crucial role. It’s only thanks to their powerful sense of smell that they can help their human friends find missing persons and save lives. Let’s take a closer look at these furry heroes.
It takes about two years to fully train a search and rescue dog, or, more fittingly, a dog team, which consists of a dog and its handler. Training starts with a basic obedience course, in the presence of other dogs, as they must learn not to let themselves get distracted while working. They later undergo different kinds of training: a more generic part, with the purpose of strengthening their muscles, and a specific training, to familiarise the dogs with the different contexts they may find themselves working in.
Training is based on play and positive reinforcement. Whenever the dog does what he’s asked to do, he’s given a treat. We humans tend to think of dogs as selfless heroes, but they do their job driven by a tangible motivation, such as a treat, a caress, a compliment or their favourite toys. Of course, this by no means makes what they do less special, or less worthy of praise.
Any dog can become a rescue dog, no matter what breed (or lack thereof). The requisites for this position are certain characteristics:
- Robust and athletic figure;
- Prompt response to commands;
- Lack of aggressiveness towards humans or other dogs;
- Being indifferent to the dangers that may occur in rescue situations, such as fire, water and uneven terrain.
However, we know that some breeds, such as Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, German shepherds and Belgian Malinois shepherd carry some characteristics that make them particularly suitable for search and rescue operations. Whether the dog is male or female makes no difference, as a dog’s abilities are not dependent on sex. The only difference observed is that females are usually more docile, while males are more easily distracted by other dogs or by female dogs in heat.
Searching for survivors among rubble is by no means a risk-free activity. While walking over and beneath unstable structures, dogs can be involved in accidents caused by slides, which is why an agile, light body is a great asset. They can also hurt their paws on broken glass and other broken materials on the ground. The career of these precious furry friends ends at about 10 years of activity, when their senses – sight and sense of smell – begin to fail. When they’re deemed fit for retirement, they’re sent home to their human family to continue their lives like “civilian” dogs.
We’re lucky to have them. Pets become our best friends in everyday life, and we know we can count on them when we need them.