THE $10,000 DOG

feature (2)(ventura county reporter) In a corner of the Camarillo airport, near the empty structures where Ventura County firefighters train, a black border collie convulses with anticipation as he ogles a makeshift obstacle course with the kind of lust his fellow canines usually reserve for a T-bone. Six Central Coast firefighters work out how they will lead their dogs up flat-rung ladders, through plastic tubing tunnels and over unsteady planks; the saucer-eyed Taku whimpers when one of them approaches the course without him.

He is done waiting and races toward the nearest ladder; he has to be held back by a member of the Salinas Fire Department.

The empty plastic barrels, the chain ladders and teeter totters re-create the experience of navigating through debris in a hypothetical landscape of collapsed homes, landslides and bombed buildings. The five dogs that wait patiently, and Taku, are Federal Emergency Management Agency-certified for deployment in disaster areas. Their relatively lightweight bodies allow them to tread where their human handlers wouldn’t dare; their noses are far more accurate at sensing buried human survivors than any machinery yet devised.

Su Vodrazka, a sensei in the realm of dog mentality, brings her experience as a full-time FEMA-certified handler to the firefighters who have come to the Ojai-based Search Dog Foundation in the hopes of becoming certified themselves. They are at the end of a somewhat agonizing year of planning and logistics — getting the go-ahead from supervisors, passing through the foundation’s interviewing process, assembling a team large enough to warrant the full training session, estimating how their lives will change to accommodate a dog in constant need of preparation and guidance. After they are given a dog prepared by the foundation, they have two more years of intensive drilling and training before they can hope to be eligible for deployment in disaster areas.

As Vodrazka delivers the cache of information with the straight, matter-of-fact solemnity of a drill sergeant, she peppers the lesson with quirky anecdotes involving foundation-trained dogs, many of whom are present: Taku is so used to heeding the sound of his handler’s whistle that he has been known to stop and sit when faced with a blaring smoke alarm. Dawson, taught to find his way over slippery surfaces by crawling, will drop to his belly and stay as close as possible to the wall when he encounters a tile floor.

On this overcast and windy April morning, the six firefighters enjoy the quick break. They are upbeat but focused, hardly betraying the fact that during their short stay in Ventura County they must forge a confidence that will allow them to lead dogs they have yet to meet through wreckage with certainty. They must know exactly how to communicate clearly, because missteps or hesitancy could delay the dog’s preparation.

For now they enjoy working with the masters, advanced dogs belonging to foundation staff.

Like Taku. He is not the lying-at-your-feet-by-the-fire sort, but if you happen to find yourself in a post-disaster scenario, you want him looking for you. An acute and discriminating sense of smell is characteristic of many dogs, but the obsessive compulsion to find what is buried, and the inner hyena that drives Taku to climb an angled ladder for fun, is not.

Debra Tosch, Executive Director of the Search Dog Foundation, describes this rare quality as a strong hunt drive: The dog is consumed with the desire to find a lost object. While it might seem callous to objectify a missing person, the dog is never consciously looking for a survivor, but the toy it imagines the survivor is carrying.

The dog learns early on to associate a live human scent with its favorite toy; during training it will approach a human in a pile of rubble and quickly understand that such a discovery earns a reunion with its favorite object. During deployment at a disaster site, the toy is kept in the handler’s back pocket and handed to the dog as a reward for finding a survivor. In this way the dog is trained to keep its nose low to the ground, and to alert to a “live find” by barking continuously.

Firefighter Johnny Subia of Seaside explains, “[In training] the ‘victim’ will come over with a toy and taunt the dog, get it all riled up, and then the dog actually sees the victim run away and get into the tube. They get the dog to start barking, like ‘I found somebody here!’ Then the person inside the tube rewards the dog with the toy, and the dog realizes, ‘Hey, finding people is fun!’ So it’s always about the toy.”

Not every dog will brave hell and high water for a piece of rope or a swatch of fire hose, but the skill is easy to test, and Tosch estimates that of the dogs put up to this kind of scrutiny — those already among the hyperactive crowd — about one in 40 passes.

It only takes 10 minutes to check a potential rescue dog for “boldness of character,” or how well it will respond when greeted by a stranger. First, an umbrella is opened in her face. If the dog attacks the umbrella or runs from it, thereby exhibiting aggression or fear, it does not possess the necessary qualities. If it examines the umbrella, it has shown adaptability. A toy is thrown into a bush, and the dog must demonstrate a strong ambition to follow. It cannot decide — as many would — to simply leave the toy be. It cannot make the decision that the toy is not worth the trouble of going deep into the brush; if it gives up at the sight of a little natural resistance, how will it respond to 12 hours of treading through rubble?

“We’re not really teaching these dogs how to search,” Tosch admits. “Dogs have been hunting and searching all on their own for hundreds and hundreds of years. All we’re doing is teaching them to look for people, and then communicate to us when they find that. Their job is to continue to bark until they get that toy.” During a rescue, that translates to the dog barking at a site until backup arrives, generally in the form of another search dog who could confirm a live find.

Tosch adds, “Whether a dog is trained to find the living, the dead, the missing or drugs — we’re looking for exactly the same traits. The dog doesn’t care what it’s looking for; it cares what it gets when it finds it. The type of dogs we look for are the dogs that are happy to be there searching.”

Wilma Melville, founder of the nonprofit Search Dog Foundation, realized a decade ago that good intentions and a loyal dog weren’t enough to form a capable search team. At that time, she was a volunteer handler responding to the Oklahoma City Bombings with her German shepherd, but among fellow “hobby” rescuers, realized that her training, and theirs, wasn’t entirely sufficient.

“I had this notion: It shouldn’t be a hobby,” she recalls.

At the time, there were eight advanced certified dogs in the state of California, and only 15 in the nation, under a system of training which Melville describes as “hit or miss” — there was little knowledge of the most efficient way to prepare a dog for deployment.

Melville had been trained by fellow volunteers, all of them from the public sector. Training took place once a month and was spread out over a number of years; Melville recognized that treating search and rescue as a weekend interest was costing the country a valuable security resource.

“A person who has a family and a job, how much actual time can they put into it in the first place?” she considers. “Many of them spent years at it and never got close to FEMA certification, which was in its infancy 13 years ago.”

She describes the old process as “painful, slow” and one that generally failed. She never reached certification with her German shepherd.

After a few false starts, she was introduced to Pluis Davern, a Gilroy, Calif.-based trainer. With a second dog, Murphy, at her side, Melville discovered that FEMA certification could be attained within a couple of years.

At the time, the former physical education teacher was a couple of years into retirement, living in Ojai and filling her days with endurance horseback riding in the mountains. She had begun to nurture her interest in dog training by volunteering in wilderness rescue, but quickly tired of searching vast regions where, all too often, the person for whom teams of 20 or 30 volunteers were looking had simply up and gone without telling anyone.

With disaster search, however, the search area is defined. “You are clearing the area to determine if there is someone alive in there, and that in itself has a value. Let’s say it’s an apartment building and it’s noon. Most people are at work, you’re just making sure no one is left behind. Then, as each person is accounted for, the search can be called off. It appealed to me more.”

After her experience in Oklahoma City, she decided to use her knowledge at building curricula, coupled with her insight into the search dog industry’s weaknesses, to build a better program. Although there was much left for her to learn about dog psychology and effective training, she decided that whatever she could possibly contribute to the field would be an improvement.

And so what began as a desire to make disaster search more efficient turned into the country’s only agency to train, provide and supervise the preparation of search teams. Melville founded the Search Dog Foundation.

First, she decided, the foundation would have to choose the dogs. Well-meaning volunteers showing up with the family pet wouldn’t do. She also realized that the cost of training — approximately $10,000 per dog — would be wasted, and the two years of training squandered; if the handler wasn’t equally prepared.

“This is certainly not for everyone,” Melville grants. “It’s not at all uncommon for a person to go on their first actual deployment and never to go again; it’s especially true with civilians. Most people think there’s some kind of glory attached to it, but all there is attached to it is a great deal of strenuous work and misery and discomfort. Now with a firefighter it’s different; they’re used to automobile accidents, urban search and rescue. They’re not surprised.”

Firefighters also have more time between shifts to allow them the requisite two weekly training sessions with other search teams, as well as daily practice.

Erik Hanzelka of the Carmel Valley Fire Department estimates that he trains his dog 15 to 30 minutes a day. “There’s always time, there’s always some sort of downtime that we have. Fifteen minutes out of my lunch hour is nothing.”

Subia has been working with his black lab, two-and-a-half-year-old Lola, for two months. “She’s with me at the fire station 24/7, and then at home 24/7.” He reports that other firefighters have been more than receptive to Lola’s presence, often wishing she weren’t on such a regimented diet and training schedule. For those of his in-house colleagues unfamiliar with training procedure, Subia admits, comparing him to infamous dictators has become common.

“It’s such a specialized field, being a fireman,” says Subia. “You can be swift water rescue, hazmat (hazardous materials) — there are so many different areas you could pursue. I didn’t want to be a hazmat specialist, and we already had an arson investigator. I was just thinking outside the box.”

The foundation absorbs the cost of training and caring for the dogs, so there is little immediate expense to a new handler. But there are hours of training, and days spent away from work and family to continue preparing the dog.

Without question, going this avenue requires the support of the higher-ups, and Subia was still on his probation period at the station when he had the idea to train for search and rescue. After speaking with three battalion chiefs and a city manager, he joined a group of firefighters from Carmel Valley to begin the training.

Subia admits that his understanding of dog psychology was initially limited. “I didn’t think I had any special skills other than patience … the only interesting link I had is, my girlfriend is a sea otter trainer, she works at Monterey Bay. One of the books they train under is Don’t Shoot the Dog, which is a book we also have to read, about how to train through positive reinforcement. I like that idea in itself, the fact that you’re going to work with this dog. It’s not going to be intimidated by you. It’s going to be working to please you.”

The vast majority of handlers are firefighters by trade, but that’s not to say that civilians are completely absent from canine search and rescue. Tosch, like Melville, started as a part-time volunteer in wilderness search and was turned on to disaster relief when she moved to the Ojai Valley. Although she now works for the foundation and in this way has found an employer sympathetic to her dog training schedule, it’s not unheard of for a private citizen to balance both professional and rescue careers.

It took some convincing for Melville to accept that Ron Weckbacher, a financier for Morgan Stanley, would be up to the task. According to development manager Clare Fitzgerald, Melville gave the man “a high-energy border collie” before he left for a weekend camping trip. Melville didn’t expect that Weckbacher — who was later deployed to the La Conchita mudslide — would come back for more. He now works with the border collie duo of Mannie and Dawson, and has reportedly shown interest in taking on a third.

“You assume that, based on people’s vocation, that’s where their passions lie,” Fitzgerald reflects, “then they have this love for search and rescue which is totally opposite that. Ron arrives at training in his suit and tie.”

The dogs are in Weckbacher’s office all day in a crate, not only to maintain order but because many dogs need the visual cue of the crate to remind them they can rest and turn off.

Off the street

The dogs that specialize in rescue were, for the most part, rescued themselves.

Many of them started out in shelters, although occasionally a breeder will donate a dog that seems to have the right characteristics, like Sydney, a duck troller from a Nova Scotia kennel. But the foundation never buys a dog, and the vast majority of certified dogs scanning through the rubble have seen the inside of a pound.

The desired hunting and retrieval traits are more prevalent in certain breeds — German and Belgian shepherds, golden retrievers, collies — but it is far more important that the dogs be high-energy than purebred, and there have been notable exceptions to the usual range. Tosch recalls both a rat terrier and a giant schnauzer that became certified.

The foundation no longer accepts or trains puppies, however. The qualities of tenacity, of obsessive hunt drive, don’t appear until the dog is at least nine months of age.

“We need 20 or 22, 23 dogs a year,” estimates Melville. “So far, we’ve been able to locate them out there in the world, dogs that needed rescue.”

This habit of rescuing dogs is fast becoming industry standard for many other agencies that depend on a canine workforce.

“When others looked at our success, which was extraordinary, they said, ‘Maybe it’s this business of rescuing the dog,’ ” says Melville.

Learning the ropes

The first few months of a search dog’s career can resemble a guide dog’s early beginnings. The prospective rescue pooch is placed in a prep home to learn critical skills of socialization. Soon after, she will travel to Gilroy, Calif., to learn the basics with Davern at Sundowners Kennel. This phase will take about six months.

A dog may prove itself unsuitable once at Sundowners; Fitzgerald remembers one that had demonstrated a considerable hunt drive, but seemed to lose steam once he began training. For this reason the foundation has instituted its Lifetime Care Program, so from training on, if it becomes clear that a dog is unsuitable, or if the dog becomes injured or ill and must leave the program early, the foundation will not abandon it. There is a healthy list of families — often including the dog’s prep home — waiting to adopt. Should retirement not work out at one of these homes, the foundation will continue to place the dog until it finds a compatible home.

To take on a dog that failed the program isn’t a completely altruistic deed for the new owners. “These dogs come to them fully trained. They’re at no cost to them. It’s a win-win situation,” says Fitzgerald. “We can find amazing homes for the dogs; they’re guaranteed a good life. The individuals that receive the dog are getting a great dog.”

The dogs who do make it through initial training at Sundowners will be matched with handlers who, somewhere during those six months, are likewise being initiated into the language of search procedure.

Street smarts

Communication between the dog and handler must be constant and regulated by whistles and commands. In a landscape of protruding wood, rebar and jagged edges, a dog searches “naked”; a collar could become a choking device, a leash could potentially harm or kill, so the dog and handler team must be able to work so well together that physical control is rarely an issue.

“We teach them a lot about dog behavior, how they think and how they learn,” says Melville. “During that initial six-day period they’re working with an already highly trained dog. The handler is learning from the dog.”

At the April training session, Vodrazka notes that by our point of reference, dogs function at a 2- to 3-year-old level. Then she recites “the ten rules of shaping,” protocol for modeling an effective search dog: start small; focus on one behavior at a time; require a little bit more from the dog each session to merit a reward; stay ahead of the dog with reward or correction; be flexible and open to different approaches; keep the training session sacred and uninterrupted; and end on a high note, even if that means asking an overwhelmed dog simply to sit in order to get praise.

And when lost, Vodrazka instructs, “Go back to kindergarten!” That is, move back to a previous lesson and work forward, although this recommendation has a more literal interpretation, as playgrounds are often the best and most available alternative to obstacle courses. “And,” Vodrazka adds, “kids love seeing dogs play on their stuff.”

“Go to the serpentine snake thing,” she suggests to the central coast firefighters, explaining that schoolyard structures often provide ideal opportunities for dogs to practice their climbing. “If it’s not a straight ladder, I guarantee your dog can climb it.”

Toward the end of the training session, Vodrazka counsels both man and dog on a raised platform. A small black labrador shakily finds his way across an uncertain plank set five feet above the ground, for as reluctant as his human partner seems to be about forcing him through this hurdle, the dog seems just as determined to make it across.

When the dog is struggling, Vodrazka demonstrates, encouragement means little more than holding the coveted toy over the side of the obstacle.

“That’s the interesting part with these dogs,” Subia later reflects. “You watch them at the obstacle course at Sundowners. They’ll fall, and you can see how unsure and unsteady the surface is, but you put the toy out a couple steps ahead of them, all of a sudden their focus is, ‘I can get to that toy!’ If they fall off, they’re very eager to get back up.”

After two weeks of training with advanced certified dogs, the handlers in training will travel to Gilroy for two weeks with Davern and a constant rotation of dogs. Davern, a keen observer of both canine and human nature, acts as a matchmaker at the end of those two weeks. Fitzgerald notes, “She’s only had to make two changes the entire length of the program in terms of switching dogs and handlers.”

The dog then accompanies the firefighter, police officer or civilian to work and becomes integrated into the handler’s home life. Together, they become integral components of a unique search team.

“If I certify with my dog, Abby, and another dog certifies with their handler, I cannot deploy with their dog,” explains Tosch. “I would not be able to read somebody else’s dog the way I can read mine; it’s a very cohesive relationship.”

And for all the fearless momentum of a dog in the line of duty, the handler also becomes the dog’s advocate in messy, unpredictable terrain.

“It’s not an expendable resource,” asserts Vodrazka. She tells about her experience in the aftermath of a train wreck, when an attending rescue worker urged her to send her dog, Hero, under a burning diesel engine to check if the vehicle beneath contained any survivors. She flatly refused. “You have to be adamant when you feel a situation isn’t safe.”

Getting there

Although the foundation and handlers take care of a dog’s preparation, it is the now-infamous FEMA that awards certification and deploys teams during or after a disaster. (In the case of the Winter 2002 Olympics in Utah, teams were called preemptively in a post-9/11 atmosphere of heightened security.) A team will generally train together for certification for a year and a half to two years or more, and must be prepared to ably demonstrate a range of skills and agility. A dog must climb both flat-rung and round-rung ladders, cross an elevated and potentially rickety plank, turn 90 degrees into darkness (generally a tunnel), navigate an unsteady surface and deal with a pivot point (for the purposes of the test, a teeter-totter).

Then it’s to the test site: three piles — or hypothetical rescue sites — that measure up to 15 square feet each contain buried, human-scented clothing, food and anywhere from zero to three people. Six people are buried in total. A handler and dog have 20 minutes to confirm how many people are in each pile. The dog cannot alert to a distraction — in other words, if she barks at a buried shirt the way she should a live human being, she has failed.

During the two years leading up to the FEMA test, the high-energy dogs become pillars of self-control, even learning to “hold it in” — they defecate on command and in keeping with what they have been taught, to ignore distractions. The dogs know not to touch water or food at the rescue site. As any handler deployed to the wreckage after Hurricane Katrina will tell you, this can be a saving grace.


The Search Dog Foundation trains approximately 81 percent of the dog and handler rescue teams in California, providing one-fifth of the teams nationally. Teams that have gone through the foundation have been present in the aftermath of the worst American disasters in recent memory: the debris of the World Trade Center, the devastation after the south Florida hurricanes of 2004, both the Laguna Beach and La Conchita landslides and the Gulf after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

And they have gained credibility as an integral component of the rescue process.

“When we deploy, we go with the entire task force. You travel as a team,” says Tosch, a member of the Los Angeles City Task Force. “We do a caravan because we’ve got 82 people going if we take the entire force. The equipment that you take is tremendous, so if you’re flying, it takes a military cargo plane. There are different bases that we fly out of, but you don’t just get in a car or plane and show up by yourself.”

The larger rescue team includes medical and rescue specialists — doctors, structural engineers, management, logistics and communications specialists, and a Hazmat team.

“We’re very fortunate,” acknowledges Tosch. “We have a lot of support with us, so if there’s a void, if we don’t know it’s safe to send our dog in, we have a structural engineer to tell us if there’s danger. Everybody works together as a team. If the dogs find somebody, the technical support puts their camera down there. You have the rescue people to get them out. You have the medical people to help them once you get them out.”

Most recently, Tosch was deployed to the Hurricane Rita-ravaged Mississippi coast for two weeks, and is cleared to be deployed internationally should help be requested. But as her call to La Conchita demonstrated, disaster isn’t always far off.

Finding the dead

As Vodrazka tells it, these dogs’ abilities pose some uncomfortable questions about the line separating life and death. Dogs generally are trained for either live rescue or cadaver-finding work, making it clear that there is a definite point, within an hour after a person’s death, that relegates the duty of discovery from one kind of dog to another.

The scent of a human body changes after death. It’s not unusual for a live rescue dog to react to the scent of a corpse, but it will generally only do it in passing, with little more than a whimper.

Hero generally whines softly when near a cadaver, but has on at least one occasion expressed confusion about a recently deceased victim. Vodrazka reports that after the Glendale train disaster, Hero swept quickly through most of the derailed train cars and stopped when confronted with a victim who had died within the previous half hour. She was neither barking nor giving her dismissive acknowledgement; she bounced between Vodrazka and the victim. The dog was confused.

“Then, upstairs, she walked over a dead-on-impact man,” Vodrazka remembers. “She left paw prints all the way across him.”

The Foundation

Melville’s foundation is now a decade old, but by Tosch’s estimate, FEMA’s need is only half met. The organization would like to have over 300 teams, but only 150 are currently certified.

The foundation now hopes to relocate to a permanent training center. Handler training currently takes place at newly demolished sites or the Ventura County fire training center, but the foundation is seeking a 30-acre donation of land, where offices, a permanent obstacle course and piles could be set up.

And, of course, the foundation would like to stay in Ventura County.

“No agency exists like this,” says Melville. “This is the only agency that I’m aware of that raises the money so that we can professionally train the dog, gives the dog at absolutely no cost to the firefighter, trains the firefighter to be a handler using a very defined curriculum, and follows the firefighter for the next eight or 10 years of the working life of the dog, stays with him, provides training, provides everything to keep him on course.”

All clear

The dogs form an efficient system, far more accurate and thorough — not to mention faster — than any machinery yet developed. Dogs sweep through disaster regions, and if they continue without making an alert, human responders are confident they can pass through without leaving anyone behind. Covered areas are marked using FEMA-mandated symbols.

Reflecting on her task force’s experiences in post-Rita Mississippi, Tosch says, “We did not find anyone. The area we ended up working in was on the beach. Most of the areas were just totally devastated, there wasn’t much chance of finding anybody there.” But, she says, “A lot of times the environments that we do get deployed to are environments that the chances of finding survivors are pretty slim, but the one really good thing about having the dogs there … is we know, we’re able to know that everything that could be done was done so as to not lose someone left behind. That’s the worst thing you could do, is leave somebody behind, and the dogs are a valuable resource to be able to cover that resource. We’re able to say there’s no one here. It’s OK to move on.”

originally published Jul 6 2006

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