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Dobes In SAR

by Shirley Hammond and Gail McCarthy

Dogs make wonderful companions and loving additions to many families throughout the country. Dogs also provide valuable public services by participating in police, fire and search and rescue missions.

One such dog that is in training for search and rescue is Harlow, a pretty 4-year old Doberman bitch who is owned and trained by Gail McCarthy, of Needham, Massachusetts. Harlow, whose registered name is Alisaton Star-Trip v Dalclar CGC WAC, was bred by Pat Daly and Gwen DeMilta. Her sire was BIS Ch. LeMils D Triple Threat and her dam is Ch. Lastar's Pantera.

Gail and Harlow are both members of NorEast Canine Search Services, Inc. (NorEast K-9), a canine search and rescue (SAR) agency which operates in the New England states, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Task Force. FEMA's USAR Task Force has been a major search and rescue resource in our country for many years. Search dog teams sponsored by FEMA have responded to many of the recent national disasters including Hurricanes Andrew and Hugo, the Northridge earthquake and the Oklahoma City and World Trade Center bombings.

As a dog/handler team, Gail and Harlow recently passed the Basic Level II FEMA Canine Search Specialists Test, making them one of only forty-eight search dog teams in the country which are currently FEMA-certified at the Basic Level and the only team from Massachusetts which has so certified. There are an additional twenty-five teams that have gone on and passed the FEMA Advanced Level I Test. Along with Harlow, there are three other Dobermans that are certified at the Basic Level: Spice (Shirley Hammond, CA), Sunny (Shirley Hammond, CA) and Perp (Tess Starr, WA).

Dogs capable of working in the chaos and confusion of the types of major incidents to which FEMA responds require a great deal of training. Of crucial importance is that the dog become familiar with the environmental features it will likely encounter in an actual emergency situation -- dusty, wobbly and uneven footing; broken glass and ragged concrete blocks and rebar; and tunnels and caverns formed from collapsed building materials. Not only must a disaster dog feel comfortable running around on top of rubble piles (and be willing to follow human scent into the pile if necessary), a disaster dog must not be distracted by the noise of heavy equipment and must learn to ignore the presence of rescue personnel who may be attempting to extricate trapped victims. The bottom line in disaster work is that a search dog that will not independently locate human scent and enthusiastically alert because it is concerned with its safety is useless.

Up until a year ago, Harlow had no search and rescue training and only went along with Gail when she trained her older Doberman, Banner, in wilderness SAR. When Gail applied for a spot on the Massachusetts USAR Task Force, she thought that she would use Banner as her disaster dog because he had such a strong base in SAR-work. Frustrated in her attempts to teach the "bark alert" to Banner, however, Gail asked her FEMA Instructor if she could try working with Harlow as Harlow had a quick bark reflex and was very motivated by tennis balls and other types of toys. By the end of the first training session, Harlow was racing down and barking at people hiding in a "bark barrel" and she has been happily barking at hidden people ever since.

As Harlow is a very eager and motivated worker, she was an easy dog to train and Gail has learned a great deal from her. Despite not liking other people to touch her (which, of course, stopped all hopes of a successful show career!), Harlow is completely unfazed by yelling, screaming, shouting, loud noises, falling objects, or any of the other noises and events generally associated with a chaotic disaster scene. Harlow also is extremely agile and confident on various agility equipment or odd footings. Although she was a bit rattled by the first week- long training trip she took to California from Massachusetts (consisting of flying in-cabin on four connecting flights), Harlow was unruffled by her recent trip to Indiana (consisting of six connecting flights) for a one-week training session at the FEMA Canine Specialty School and was "working her tennis balls" within an hour of returning home. It is, in fact, Harlow's unquenchable love of tennis balls that has made training her so easy. Long before she started SAR-training, Harlow had designed no less than five separate games involving tennis balls (most of which involved Gail down on her hands and knees retrieving balls popped under sofas and chairs). Folding Harlow's ball-fixation into the training process has made for a very happy and motivated worker.

In order to pass the FEMA Basic Test, Harlow had to complete five required elements, each of which is designed to test a separate and fundamental skill necessary in the trained SAR-dog. Each of the required elements must be performed within a specified period of time. The first part is "Obedience" and the dog is required to heel off-lead, to down-on-recall and to perform a 5-minute out-of-sight down stay. It is self-evident that any dog responding to an emergency event must be obedient and Harlow had no problem with this portion of the test as Harlow is a product of the positive/food-based system of attention/motivation designed by Terri Arnold, a six-time winner of the Gaines SuperDog Award.

The second part of the Basic Test is the "Bark Alert," where the handler stands at a starting point 75 feet from a barrel in which a person has been hiding for a minimum of ten minutes. The handler is permitted to direct the dog to the barrel but once the dog has indicated the scent of the person, the dog must remain focused and demonstrate an "independent of handler" alert behavior for thirty-seconds. (The short-hand name for this behavior is "focused bark indicating live human scent" or "FBILHS"). The desired alert behavior would be for the dog to bark and attempt to penetrate by digging or scratching at the barrel so that the handler, as well as any non-doggy rescue personnel who also may be on the pile, can clearly recognize if the dog has located live human scent. Again, Harlow had little problem with this portion of the test as her bark alert on the barrel is very strong and consistent. Harlow offers little penetration behavior, however, so training on sand or other soft soils in the future may encourage her digging behavior.

The third part of the Basic Test, "Direction and Control," is affectionately known as "doggy baseball" and requires the handler to direct the dog onto one of four pallets laid out in a diamond shape. The center pallet, or pitcher's mound, is positioned 75 feet in front of a designated "home" baseline. The first-base and third-base pallets are placed 75 feet to the right and left of center and the second-base pallet is placed 75 feet directly behind the center pallet. The handler may give multiple commands but must remain behind the baseline at all times. The purpose of "doggy-baseball" is to teach directional "concepts" to the dog via the use of targets so that the dog, after being weaned off the targets in the more advanced stages of training, can be directed to avoid unsafe areas or can be directed to more fully search other sections. As "Direction and Control" is typically one of Harlow's better skills, Gail rarely practices directional work more than once a week. At the test, however, Harlow (for reasons known only to Harlow!) focused on the first-base pallet and ran over to it instead of going back to the second-base pallet from the center pallet. Having lost her voice from an upper respiratory infection, Gail valiantly tried to redirect Harlow to the correct pallet with hand signals only (something which they unfortunately had never practiced!!). With a sigh of relief, Gail eventually got Harlow re-directed with plenty of time to spare.

The fourth part of the Basic Test is "Agility" where the dog is asked to negotiate six different obstacles on command but with no assistance from the handler. The dog must work independently and also must precede the handler whenever possible. The "Agility" portion of the Basic Test is designed to test whether the dog will move deliberately and confidently on shaky, wobbly footing or on spatially-complicated obstacles which the dog has never before seen. The obstacles which Harlow was required to negotiate included: 1) a 6-foot ladder at the top of which Harlow had to make a quick right-hand turn onto a narrow elevated plank: 2) two 30' lengths of tunnel with blocks of rubble strewn throughout and which were connected at a right angle with the ends partially barricaded; 3) a seesaw; 4) a plank elevated 6-feet off the ground and which again had a right angle in it; 5) a picket fence laying on the sides of two barrels which rolled as Harlow walked along the fence; and 6) a 15' length of chain link fencing resting against a pile of barrels which Harlow had to walk up. Harlow successfully negotiated all six obstacles but did have some difficulty with the ladder - like many dogs, learning to walk up a ladder (which requires the dog to push up with its hind legs) had been difficult for her and she fell down many times in her initial learning stages. In training, however, Harlow never quit trying and, similarly, when her legs got tangled up on the ladder during the Basic Test, Harlow gamely struggled up to the top and was justifiably proud when she made the quick right-hand turn onto the narrow elevated plank!

The fifth and final part of the Basic Test is the "Search on a Rubble Pile," where the dog must demonstrate the ability to work independently and to integrate the previously evaluated elements by performing an actual search problem. The fact that the search problem is scheduled at the end of the test also helps evaluate the dog's ability to deal effectively with stress and to continue working although it may be tired. Prior to testing, one "victim" is hidden in a 40' by 50' rubble pile consisting predominately of concrete or other materials common to a disaster site. The "victim" is positioned so that the dog can make no physical contact with the "victim." The victim's hiding spot also is located out-of-sight of the handler as a key objective of the search problem is to determine whether the dog will perform an independent bark alert without handler support. The handler therefore starts the dog from a position alongside the rubble pile where the dog will not be able to see the handler once it begins to work its way into the pile. Only when the handler notifies the evaluators that the dog has made a find will the handler be permitted to access the pile. The handler then has fifteen seconds after access to pinpoint the location of the "victim" or must leave the pile and "re-start" the dog. The section of the rubble pile used for Harlow's test was made up of large pieces of brick chimney, concrete blocks and wobbly, wooden pallets which created many voids and uneven levels. This type of terrain is difficult because the dog must be comfortable on unpleasant footing and have developed spatial acuity. Although Gail and Harlow had trained a great deal on large rubble piles, they had done little training on piles with numerous deep voids, making this rubble pile quite a test for Harlow.

On the day of the test, the wind was blowing very hard and a strong scent plume had developed along the top edge of the rubble pile below which Gail was required to stand. Neither Gail nor Harlow could see over the rubble pile when standing in the starting area but, when Harlow scampered up to the top edge, she not only hit the edge of the distinct scent plume but she came face to face with a complicated jumble of rocks and rubble and broken sewer pipes and voids. In conflict, Harlow unfortunately started to bark which, of course, was a problem as the objective is to locate "primary" scent and not to alert on "fringe" scent. Recognizing that Harlow had not committed to a "primary" source, Gail waited to see if Harlow would relax on the pile and begin to work the scent. Sure enough, Harlow started to move down into the pile and Gail, who was still standing off the pile and who could not see her dog, was happy to hear Harlow begin her distinctive "FBILHS" bark alert. Much to Gail's dismay, however, Harlow raced back to Gail before Gail could access the pile and identify the victim's location based on Harlow's alert. Thinking quickly, Gail decided that the best thing she could do was "re-start" Harlow in the hopes that Harlow would tap into her solid base of prior training and identify for a second time the location of the "victim." On command, Harlow raced up over the 8-foot rubble wall and back down into the rubble pile and immediately began her "FBILHS" bark alert. Gail quickly sought permission to access the pile and this time came alongside Harlow where, because Harlow continued to alert notwithstanding Gail's presence on the pile, Gail easily was able to pinpoint the precise location of the "victim." Time elapsed: 3 minutes 31 seconds but it felt like an eternity!!

Appreciating that careful conditioning had taken a dog with no training and had enabled her to pass a difficult and multi-faceted SAR-test in less than fourteen months, Gail was very proud of her dog's accomplishments. Gail recognizes, however, that passing the Basic Test just means that her dog has the minimum requirements necessary for a dog to perform reliably and confidently in the field. Therefore, Gail views taking and passing the Basic Test more as an indicator of the areas where she and Harlow must now focus so that ultimately each will be prepared for the FEMA Advanced Level I Test. We wish Gail, as well as the other three Basic Level dog/handler teams, the best in their efforts to pass this milestone!

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