Searching through wreckage in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina might not sound like much fun, but it’s these kinds of scenarios that Ace—a yellow Labrador trained by the National Search Dog Foundation (SDF)—lives for. In 2005, he and his then-handler, Teresa Ortenberger of California Task Force 7, went to New Orleans, scouring the city grounds for survivors and ensuring areas were clear before reconstruction teams began work. It takes a special dog to devote himself completely to the search for disaster victims, and SDF, which has trained rescue dogs since 1996, commits to finding these heroic canines from an unexpected place: the pound.
Ace, like many of his fellow dogs in the program, is a rescue puppy. He was found tied to a railroad track in Fremont, CA, where he had been sprayed with mace and abandoned. Taken to an animal shelter for euthanasia, he was saved by a firefighter trained as an SDF trained search dog handler. After a recovery period, it became clear that Ace was fast, strong, tenacious, and loved hunting for toys—the very criteria required of a search dog. Following months of intensive training, Ace joined Ortenberger, and they set out as a disaster search team.
Few of the dogs from the SDF’s program actually make it out into the field. “For every 100 highly driven, toy-obsessed dogs we think might be perfect for the job, only 10 actually have what it takes,” said Janet Reineck, the foundation’s Development Director. It costs $10,000 to start the process of training these dogs, but over the ensuing months the burnout rate is high. Once taken from the pound and given care and attention, many of the trainees decide they’d rather just be ordinary dogs.
“Some lose the drive once they enter the training program and are given daily doses of love and attention,” Reineck added. Previously four-legged chasing and digging machines these dogs—now well-trained and focused—make ideal pets and are given to loving “Lifetime Care” homes by SDF.
Those whose energy and desire to search does not wane, however, eventually pass through the program and are provided at no cost to the fire departments, where they team up with firefighters. After another year of training, they are ready to be tested for FEMA Certification. Once they pass this challenging test, they can be deployed to help recovery efforts after disasters like earthquakes, mudslides, building collapses and commuter rail crashes.
Typically Golden Retrievers, labs, or Border Collie mixes, SDF pooches, unlike bloodhounds or police dogs, look tirelessly for people of whom they have no prior scent. While the work at a site is demanding and potentially dangerous, it’s something dogs like Ace manage with confidence. Six to eight months of intensive training gives them the skills they need to face any challenge.
The Search Dog Foundation is in the process of creating a National Training Center in California where it can train America’s Disaster Search Dogs, Reineck said, but for now the rescuers are prepared at different locations around the country. The Search Dog Foundation receives no government money, and is funded exclusively through private donations.
With his new handler, Firefighter Robert Cima, Ace now lives in Sacramento, CA, where he awaits the call of duty, relishing the chance to have come full circle, from rescued to rescuer.