If you hear the phrase “service worker,” what comes to mind? Police, firefighter, EMS, nurse, soldier, teacher? If I say service animal, what’s the first thing you picture? A Retriever opening a drawer to fetch a pair of socks for someone in a wheelchair, a police dog, search and rescue dogs at Ground Zero or maybe a veteran with PTSD?
If you thought of any of those, you’re right. Animals in service to humanity exist everywhere, in many species and many manifestations. And, like human service jobs, each type requires training, certification (usually) and the right type of personality and inherent qualities necessary for the job.
In 2016, the last search and rescue dog from the 9/11 attacks passed away at the age of 16. Bretagne (pronounced Brittany) was a “pushy puppy,” according to her owner and handler Melissa Corliss. That behavior described one of the qualities Bretagne needed to be a successful SAR dog — determination. SAR teams look for dogs who are obsessively focused during play, who are bold, obedient and intelligent, able to work and solve problems on their own while remaining attentive to their handlers, and who have a strong will to succeed and to please their owners.
They need a lot of stamina, as searches can cover up to 160 acres at a time and go on for hours. Ideally, these same traits apply to the handlers as well. And of course, the dogs should be friendly — to humans and other animals. I once met a SAR Bloodhound from New Mexico Working K9’s at an air show. When I stooped down to see if he’d let me pet him, he walked over, sat on my foot and licked my face.
Breeds popular as SAR dogs includes German and Belgian shepherds and Border Collies. (I came across photo of a Collie in a Red Cross vest from 1909 in Italy.) Labradors, Golden Retrievers and Spaniels, all breeds known for working closely with handlers and for doing well in various terrains. And, the stereotype is true, Saint Bernards track well in deep snow.
Training for SAR dogs can begin as early as 3 months old and typically lasts for 1 1/2 to 2 years and it’s intense. Dogs not only learn tracking techniques but also how to do things outside of their normal behavior, like climb ladders, crawl into small spaces and walk across unstable, sometimes elevated surfaces.
Some are trained as air scent dogs, some track scents on the ground. They can be scent specific, as when looking for a missing person or scent generic when searching for victims of a plane crash. Cadaver dogs must learn to distinguish between the scent of human remains and those of an animal. They train in urban and wilderness settings, with all the varieties of terrain within. They may learn to recall-find, which is to return to the handler and lead them back to the victim, or be victim-loyal, barking and staying with the victim until help arrives.
SAR work is physically and mentally challenging but there’s an emotional component, too. Being present and open to the energy and emotions of others can be exhausting, no matter what species you are. Those I know with therapy animals report their pets often engage in marathon sleep sessions after a day at the nursing home, prison or school.
At Ground Zero, we heard stories of rescuers hiding in the rubble to allow the dogs to find someone alive. After all, SAR’s motto is “that others may live.” Finding only human remains, handlers noticed the dogs were becoming anxious, restless and acting depressed. They were also most likely picking up on the despair of the human rescue workers.
Whenever one of the dogs found a living decoy, everyone’s mood was lifted. It was a win-win. I heard first-hand stories like these from New Mexico’s nationally recognized SAR team, Mountain Canine Corps of Volunteers, when they presented an amazing program at the state Humane Conference several years ago. This team has deployed to the Oklahoma bombing, hurricane Katrina and Ground Zero.
SAR dogs usually retire between ages 5 and 10. Bretagne retired at age 9, but her service work didn’t end there. She became a reading assistance dog for kids at a library. She truly had a heart for service, right up till the end. We’ll explore other animals-in-service in future columns. Till then, be well.