Rescue teams demonstrate immense value of search dogs

DARRINGTON, Wash. -- We all love our dogs very much and praise them whenever they do something good. The praise that goes to search and rescue dogs is the same, but these dogs are highly trained, highly motivated, thanks to their handlers, who spend countless hours training for search and rescue.

FEMA sent more than 20 of its Search and Rescue dog teams from across the country to the SR-530 mudslide. The Virginia Task Force One team, trained to search for human remains, offered up a demonstration Tuesday of how they work.

These handlers have been to Japan and Haiti and also searched after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. But they said this is the very first time FEMA deployed dogs trained to search for human remains to a disaster zone like this one.

"Mother Nature definitely took a hold here and it's something I've not comprehended fully," said dog handler and full-time firefighter Sally Dickinson, with Virginia Task Force 1. Dickinson said it's very stressful, physically demanding work on the dogs.

Out at the slide, they are climbing over obstacles and through thick mud.

"The mud is hampering their ability to smell they are trained to detect odor and there has to be a way for that odor to get to them," Dickinson said.

FEMA training programs make sure they're ready for any mission that comes along. And when the dogs find something, they're rewarded.

"We'll go out and play ball with them," Dickinson said. "We'll let them sleep in our bunk with us we'll fluff their ears for them."

Their work days are long -- spending about 4 to 8 hours in the field, then there's a debrief and full de-contamination with warm water. Veterinarians then fully check each dog.

"We check for their mucus membrane moistness for hydration," said Veterinarian Lori Gordon with Massachusetts Task Force 1. "I check his heart rate make sure there aren't any murmurs. I check his pulse inside the leg to make sure that they match the heart rate."

The days are long, but these dogs and their handlers train for this.

"We train in very hostile environments so when they come out here to work for the real deal, it's not that hard," Dickinson said.

Dickson said they'll take the dogs through the subway and other busy, stressful tests to make sure they're focused.

Dickinson is a full time firefighter, but the other two members of the task force who deployed with her; Elizabeth Chaney and Teresa McPherson, are civilians, all dedicated to helping others. Typically they'll deploy for 10 to 14 days and then head home. After rehab and relaxation time at home, they could be deployed again, if needed.

"We'll come out here and do our job for however long it takes," Dickinson said.