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Training Dogs To Be Heroes

It takes dedication, both human and canine

Ivy sat eagerly at the foot of the ladder, waiting for the command to go.

When her trainer gave the word, the young German shepherd climbed carefully up the ladder. Next she made her way across a board covered with pipes and slats. Then came the hardest part, going down another ladder, forepaws first. It wasn't easy, and it isn't something dogs like to do. But Ivy has had lots of practice, and she stepped down the rungs one by one to the ground. There her trainer, Nancy Hachmeister, rewarded her with praise. Ivy wagged her tail happily.

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Ivy had just passed one of the tests that qualify her to be a search-and-rescue dog. She and 13 other dogs and trainers spent the morning in Nancy's backyard climbing through tunnels, up and down ladders, and over other obstacles to show they were ready to search places where most dogs wouldn't want to go.

Their noses know

Search-and-rescue dogs are trained to use their sense of smell to find people. Dogs can detect smells much better than humans can. They can tell each person apart by his or her scent, and they can follow scents for long distances. Dogs and handlers around the world are trained and ready to search for people in many situations.

They can find skiers buried in avalanches, children who have wandered away from campsites, and river rafters washed out of their boats. They find lost hikers and people trapped in buildings by earthquakes.

Using their excellent sense of smell, they find people who cannot be seen or heard by humans.

On a Sunday afternoon in 1991, two-year-old Derrek Clay wandered away from his home near the Arizona desert. More than 500 human searchers began looking for him. Some walked through the desert, some rode horses, and some drove all-terrain vehicles. But it was Kallie, a dog trained by Nancy, who finally found Derrek days later. She'd used her sense of smell. (He was OK.)

For hundreds of years, dogs have been finding lost people. The most famous early search dog was a St. Bernard named Barry. He lived in the Alps more than 100 years ago and saved more than 40 people lost in the cold and snow of the mountains. He didn't receive a lot of training. He just wanted to help people.

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Modern search-and-rescue dogs receive a lot of training. They are taught to find people lost in forest or desert, buried under snow or a fallen building, even trapped under water.

Dogs and their handlers work as a team. The handlers train the dogs and take care of them. Handlers give their dogs instructions about where to look until the dogs pick up the scent.

Nancy and her dogs are members of Rocky Mountain Rescue Dogs, which has been training dogs in Utah since 1980. She has been training search dogs for more than 15 years. "I trained hunting dogs with my father," Nancy says, "so I had some experience with dogs already." Then she worked in the Ski Patrol, helping injured skiers and making sure ski slopes were safe.

She also had some training to do when she joined the search-and-rescue group. Handlers must be able to rappel up and down cliffs on ropes and use maps and compasses to find their way in a wilderness. They must understand avalanche dangers and how to keep themselves and their dogs safe in fallen buildings or around mudslides and other dangerous places. They also have to know how to help someone who may be injured.

Begin with hide-and-seek

The training for both dog and handler takes a lot of time and dedication. It usually begins when the dog is a puppy. The handler plays hide-and-seek games and helps the dog learn how to use his or her sense of smell to find people. The dog must learn to obey the handler's directions. Sometimes, a search dog must be flown in by helicopter or airplane, or carried up and down a cliff in a sling.

Nancy has trained and worked with several dogs and knows the special relationship that develops with each dog. "It's all a matter of trust," Nancy says. "My dog must trust me not to put her in danger. She has to be calm and willing to do whatever I ask of her."

Training continues even after the dogs have learned most of their skills. Nancy does some training every day with each of her dogs. Sometimes it's just a simple game or a practice climb. At least once a week the training is focused on searching. Nancy and her dog may spend a weekend with other teams, practicing. They will take the dogs to a mountain area, hide a few volunteers, and have the dogs take turns finding them.

They may visit a construction site so the dogs can practice walking around in a place that resembles a fallen building. In winter they bury volunteers in the snow and let the dogs find them. All volunteers have radios, and searchers check with them frequently.

Dogs' rewards

What reward do the dogs get? "Some like to play a game," Nancy says. "Some just need a word of praise, and some are rewarded with a food treat. It just depends on the dog and what it likes. Mostly the dogs do the work because they enjoy it.... Their greatest reward is spending time with their handlers and working together. It may be hard work, but their eagerness shows that it can also be a lot of fun."


We've received so many entries that we need more time to consider them! We will present the poetry in January, rather than this month, as we originally announced. Our sincere thanks to everyone who participated.

The Ideal Search Dog

Many breeds of dogs can do search-and-rescue work. Bigger dogs, like German shepherds and retrievers, are often used because of their strength and endurance. A dog may have to spend 10 or 12 hours running over rough or snow-covered ground while searching.

Would your puppy or young dog be a good search-and-rescue dog? Here are some tests used to decide if your dog is right for rescue work:

1. Does your dog get along well with people? Many people may be involved in a rescue. Your dog might have to ride in an airplane or helicopter with a group of strangers. Rescue dogs must get along with many different people.

2. Does your dog get along with other dogs? Dogs being trained or on a search mission must behave well with other dogs, too.

3. Is your dog brave? Stamp your foot or make a loud, sudden noise behind your dog. If he starts or jumps, but then comes back to see what made the noise, it's a sign that he won't let fear get in the way.

4. Does your dog like playing? This is a good sign, too. A search dog must keep working for hours at a time. A dog that likes to play a lot will also be willing to work hard.

5. Does your dog like to explore? Put him in an unusual place, such as on a table or on a screen laid on the floor. Good search dogs love to explore. A search dog won't just sit in one place, refuse to move, and wait for you to rescue him.

6. Will he follow you anywhere? Lead your dog into some grass that's over his head. Call to him. A search dog will follow you into strange places even if he can't see you.

How did your dog do? If he passed all these tests, he'd be a good candidate for a search-and-rescue team.

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