Working the rubble
Quake demolitions offer some goodKIM TRIEGAARDT
Some good has come from out of the rubble of demolished buildings around Christchurch.
New Zealand Search and Rescue teams were able to use either the sites themselves or simulated sites of actual building rubble around the city to train live find search dogs in real world conditions.
The dogs made a valuable contribution to finding people trapped in rubble after the February quake, and NZ USAR Search Dog Association, Tim Drennan says the dogs performed as they were trained to and there were several successful finds.
It takes a dog minutes to do what human search teams would do in an hour.
"We work together with the New Zealand Fire Service so as soon as the dog gets a hit the next step is to put the technical search gear there to find it and then the rescue teams come in. The dog then moves on to look for someone else."
It takes a special type of dog to become a search dog. While most of the dogs have some sort of working dog type characteristics, it's not about the breed. All the dogs are "misfits".
They are ones that people don't want. Brenday Woolley works at the City Council pound and, after years in the role, can spot a potential search dog when they come in.
"They have bright eyes, high drive and energy and are really the bolshy dogs, the teenage delinquents nobody wants because they are too much trouble," she says.
"We look for dogs with a high energy. Energy that isn't there for five minutes and then just disappears. They have to keep going and going and have a high hunt drive so they don't give up easily."
The dogs are trained using a "hide and seek" strategy.
"The dogs need a high prey drive," says Woolley.
"They have a favourite toy which is something they really want to get. You start by throwing it and they bring it back, then you throw the toy to another person who runs away and they find the person and bring the toy back, then that person hides and the dog has to use its nose to find the person."Once he finds the human scent then he gets his reward, which is the toy.
"It just progresses from there until we bury the person in a hole and the dog knows that when it finds the scent of a human person, they know the toy is going to pop out of the hole.
"It's a game of hide and seek."
The USAR dogs are trained as live find search dogs, which means they are trained to find victims who are trapped in building rubble, but who are still alive.
"They won't identify sites where people have died," says Drennan. "Research has shown that the scent of a body will change within two hours after someone has died, so live find dogs won't recognise the smell."
On average about one in ten dogs that she spots makes it through the training to become a search dog.
It's hard work not just for the dogs but also for the handlers. Drennan says the organisation is urgently looking for new handlers as there is a shortage of people across the country.
Currently there are only eight search dogs in New Zealand with five of them based in Christchurch.
The ideal would be to have around 20 dogs. But then they would need more handlers and not everyone is suitable.
"It does require patience, commitment and emotional stamina," says Drennan.
If you are interested in finding out more about becoming a New Zealand USAR search dog handler, see usardogs.org.nz
- Fairfax Media
Do you send Christmas cards?Related story: Christmas is still on the cards for some