Thursday, May 30, 2013

Dogs in Disasters: How We Help Each Other


A traumatized woman tells the reporter her experience when the tornado hit her house in Moore, Oklahoma. She describes her devastation that she can’t find her dog and he was probably crushed under the house when it collapsed. A few minutes later the reporter shouts “The dog! The dog!” and from under the rubble a little Schnauzer peaks his head out. Talk about a heartwarming moment. Grab your tissues and watch the video.

Not all disaster victims are lucky enough to be reunited with their pets. The best thing you can do is have an Emergency Plan and Kit prepared for you and your pets. Not knowing where you and your pets can go can add more stress to an already overwhelmingly stressful situation. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Red Cross are getting better but still not all shelters accept pets and they’re not required by law to do much for them. Most pet rescues after disasters are lead and managed by volunteers from animal rescue organizations across the country who operate based on donations. We can all help their efforts by supporting them in whatever way we can.

Rescue efforts aren’t all human based either. Trained disaster dogs are vital to rescuing both humans and pets that are trapped and in danger. Experts estimate that one search and rescue (SAR) dog can accomplish the same amount of work as 20 to 30 human searchers. Disaster SAR dogs use their noses to sniff out living victims trapped in the nooks and crannies created by a building collapse. They are especially trained for urban search and rescue situation (other dogs are trained specifically for wilderness, avalanche or water). The training is intense and very few dogs and handlers complete the FEMA advanced certification. FEMA estimates that at least 300 certified teams are needed to cope with large-scale disasters. Since Oklahoma City and Ground Zero, the number of teams completing certification is rising but there are still fewer than 100 dog-handler teams in the U.S. with this certification.

Just like service dogs, disaster dogs must have certain characteristics and temperament. They must have a strong drive, great noses, be well socialized and obedient. Shelter/rescue dogs fit well with this type of work. The training consists of rigorous agility and obedience on rubble piles. Many of these dogs that are trained never put their training into action but on the chance that a disaster strikes, these dogs and handlers are ready.

The rescue works like a game where dogs are tasked of finding a trainer hiding in the pile of rubble and rewarded with a toy or treat when they find the hidden person. This game must be second nature to the dog, able to keep steady footing and move quickly on unstable terrain. Disaster dogs at Ground Zero were crucial to the discovery of any living victims, although after a while there weren’t many. The dogs and handlers became discouraged after the night of September 13, when no more living victims were found. To keep the dogs motivated, handlers would hide in the rubble so the dog could find a living person and be rewarded for it. Since the dogs are trained to find live victims, not cadavers most dogs have a passive response to the smell. Highly experienced handlers learned to recognize their dog’s behavior so they could let workers know when a trapped body had been discovered and move on to search for living victims.

Disaster SAR dogs aren’t the only dogs on the front lines of disaster relief. Therapy dogs are brought in to comfort victims and rescue workers. Our human-canine bond provides us with comfort just by being in the presence of dogs. Petting dogs reduces anxiety and lowers stress levels. The research showing that dogs also feel empathy helps in these situations as well.

When a disaster strikes, once again we see the ultimate partnership between dogs and humans working together to help each other in whatever ways we are best suited for. Where one of us lacks, the other steps in and uses superior skills to make this world a better place for everyone.

Please keep the victims and rescuers, both canine and human, in your thoughts as the disaster relief continues.

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