Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day Thoughts on Canine SAR

By remarkable coincidence, I received an email from AKC's Companion Animal Recovery program with a story on their support of canine SAR. The relevant part:

The K9 Alert team is now 15 dogs strong and includes handlers and volunteers who specialize in a wide variety of essential SAR categories such as wilderness search and survival, collapsed structure search, swift water safety, confined space safety, human remains detection/cadaver recoveries and emergency first aid for humans and k9s. In addition to an extremely demanding call-out schedule, partially governed by requests for service through the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, the members are required to train weekly in their specialized areas.

Weekly trainings mean that on average, each of the fifteen handlers plus their support staff drive fifty miles round trip to a training (at conservative estimate) every week. We'll call that twenty people, for a total of a thousand miles, fifty weeks a year. Usually they're driving pickup trucks, SUVs, and minivans to tote equipment and a biggish dog.

In general, the creed of the SAR dog handler is "If we save one person, it's all worth it." I started wondering, though, how much particulate matter the 50,000 miles added to the air. There's a correlation between auto pollutants and the death rate of asthmatics. Is creating a large-area SAR team killing more people than it saves?

The alternate plan is for every county to have at least one dog that the county officials in charge of SAR can call on immediately. Why is that a problem? County rescue squads don't generally want to be responsible for helping to train a dog, and a large part of the work in training a SAR dog is in procuring and training the decoys. Not every county has someone with the drive to be a handler, or the money for it.

However, we seem to be coming to a crisis point in gas costs, and counties may have to rethink their approach to SAR. A well-trained dog is an incredibly valuable tool, greatly increasing the chances of finding the victim quickly. States may have to consider standardizing the SAR dog's standards if they have not already as more members of large-area teams look into joining local rescue squads instead. As large-area or statewide canine teams disband, some counties are going to find themselves without nearby scentwork resources, and they may have to devote some of their budget to getting a squad member or two trained before they can have a canine of their own.

The other change would be in the dog training itself. Currently, it's not uncommon for a canine squad to allow specialization: a few track/trail dogs, a few air-scent dogs, a cadaver dog or several, perhaps a disaster-response dog. Callouts take into consideration what each dog is trained for, and so only water-cadaver-trained dogs are called to a drowning. It is possible to train a single dog to do most of those jobs in a reasonable amount of time -- think of police dogs who are expected to do some trailing, intelligent bitework, obedience, and drug detection, and are expected to be effective and reliable on the last after six weeks of intensive training. If a SAR-intended puppy is taught to track and air-scent first, with a side order of basic agility and crowd-friendly obedience, and is then introduced to trail scent, cadaver scent, and the idea that people may be buried under objects, she will be competent to face most of the likely scenarios for a county team, and she'll be ready to deploy by the time she's two years old, possibly sooner. Air scent will give her the abilities and concepts needed for cadaver and/or disaster search; air scent combined with tracking will provide the concepts needed to decipher a trail up to several days old.

If states were willing to fund regional trainings quarterly and statewide trainings and tests annually, this might be feasible. Of course, the counties would also have to get behind it. Emergency response setups vary from state to state; some are largely volunteer organizations, some depend on the fire or police organizations to do first response as well.

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