Monday, April 19, 2010

The Importance Of Search & Rescue Dogs

She might have hit the dog and crashed the Cessna had Susannah Charleson not pulled up from her landing that night nearly 20 years ago. Charleson didn’t actually see the dog — Runway Dog she calls him in her new book — until she was later standing on the tarmac.
But she trusted her instincts to abort that first landing at the airstrip outside of Dallas. She trusted her instincts that the dog was a sign.
Years later, after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, a newspaper photo of an exhausted search and rescue worker resting against his golden retriever riveted Charleson. Again, her thoughts turned to a dog. She began to veer her flight skills toward ground searches, and becoming a dog handler. Her journey toward— and then with — her golden retriever, Puzzle, is Charleson’s smart, edgy and thought-provoking book that hit bookstores this week: Scent of the Missing: Love & Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog (Houghton Miffling Harcourt).
“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, a little child is lost and you get your dog and go out and find them’,” says Charleson, 50. “But the majority of our calls are for the deceased, so there’s a layer of tragedy. Seventy per cent are for recovery rather than rescue.”
Charleson trained for three years before she got her own dog. She was involved in the 2003 recovery of fallen-to-Earth debris from the space shuttle Columbia (she describes finding part of a human spine). She now has over four years’ worth of searches with Puzzle, who is today a 60-pound, almost-6-year-old veteran. “She is all female golden, all the time,” says Charleson. “She has a layer of reserve, and she’s just super drivey.”
A pilot, writer and teacher, Charleson is also leader of her home posse of four Pomeranians, two cats and, of course, her work-driven retriever, at her home outside of Dallas. She was in Toronto this week, and talked to the Star about dogs and love and partnership.
Q: Are you a born dog lover?
A: I came to dogs late. I’m from a family of cat people. My (ex) husband bought me a Shetland sheepdog puppy — Bogie; he was a romantic tough guy — when I was 28. Bogie would nudge people, guests at our parties, and we‘d look around and realize we‘d been herded into a circle. We had Bogie for 12 years and when he died I was so bereft I knew I wanted another dog and I knew I wanted a Pomeranian.
Q: A golden is a big shift from Pomeranians.
A: I knew when I made the commitment to train search-and-rescue I’d need a dog really, really suited to the work. They’re very different from Pomeranians by nature, and in their partnership.
Q: When did your aloof puppy finally become your partner?
A: I had a very bad fall, and I was really injured and she gave up all of her puppy wilfulness to stay beside me while I was unconscious. For probably three minutes, at least, she didn’t budge. When I came to and walked her home, she was super-super obedient, and I guess she recognized some sort of vulnerability in me that she’d never seen before.
There’s a comparable point in search when the dog realizes you can’t smell what they do. It’s the funniest thing! You see the dog kind of turn with incredulity and lead you right up to it. They look at you, and give you the most exasperated look, like, “Can’t you SMELL that?!”
Q: Do you train with her every day?
A: Yes, on some aspect of training of what she needs to do. For instance today, when we were at the airport, I dropped her lead and gave her a “wait.” That was a challenge, with all the people and all the smells and all the activity.
Q: What’s the minimum training time each day?
A: We do 30 to 45 minutes every day and many dogs do more than that.
Q: How much does search and rescue cost you?
A: It’s completely volunteer and I spend, probably, $1,200 to $1,500 a year. The initial investment was probably $3,000 to $4,000 the first year.
Q: How do you just pick up and go when a call comes in?
A: I definitely have somebody who will come and stay at the house. A lot of the searches are local, so I go out and search all night, then go home and grab a cup of coffee, and go to work.
Q: When you’re at home, does Puzzle have chores?
A: She is my willing companion in all things, so she will “supervise.” If I‘m working in the yard and there‘s fresh dirt going, she likes to get involved with that. But she‘s pretty interested in the goings on in the house. The Poms are, too.
Q: What are some of the bigger searches Puzzle has worked?
A: The last couple of years have involved searches in heavy rain. One involved a lost child in flash flooding. Another was an Alzheimer’s patient who walked out in the middle of a thunderstorm. And not long after, a homicide in heavy rain. And then two weeks later, a young man with Aspergers walked out in a thunderstorm in heavy rain.
Q: What does Puzzle do when she makes a “find”?
A: She rejoices in every single find. With Puzzle, she loves living human beings so much, she just wiggles. If it’s a struggle for me to get to them, she starts moaning and she’ll also raise up on her hind legs, like: “Right here! They’re right here!” It’s a very joyful moment.
For the dogs it’s like, “Yeah! We know you! We smelled your sock this morning!” It’s very much a rock-star moment. They wait all day and all night for that scent and when they find it, they’re thrilled.
Q: How do you reward Puzzle?
A: Microwaved wieners. Also a treat called Canine Carry-Out — they look like little steaks, which they’re not, and I sprinkle them with Parmesan cheese. But her big reward is to be praised, and the more you praise, the more she dances.
Q: Will Puzzle be search and rescue her whole life?
A: She’ll start to slow down. Often dogs will tell you they can’t maintain their stamina in 105F days, or they can’t make the debris jumps, and then they just do water searches standing in a boat. And then comes a point where the pager goes off and they’re just not interested. And then it’s time for the senior dog to retire. Puzzle really loves kitties, and that’s something we may end up doing — searches for lost pets.
Q: What do you think about the “purse dog phenomenon?”
A: There’s a large body of research behind dogs’ abilities to reduce stress in our lives. So, if the dog is happy, sociable and they have a connection to their human, then I’m all for it.
Q: Can our pet dogs be superstars?
A: I think every dog, if we open our eyes, has so much to teach us about the world. Even my Poms, even if I don’t see or smell anything, will in sync lift their heads and noses and scent, sound, sight — in that order — and tell me what’s going on.

**Taken from The Toronto Star

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