Years of training gets special dogs and their handlers closer and closer to the action — but for the most part, it isn’t always that pleasant.
Members of the Canadian Search and Disaster Dogs Association from Campbell River and Courtenay were at Errington Elementary School Tuesday, demonstrating how the dogs are trained and how they can find people who are victims of a natural disaster.
Handler Cris Caumartin of Campbell River says they train the dogs at puppies and work with them at least twice each week. The goal is to enable the dogs to find people who have been trapped in debris for earthquakes or other disasters.
“We are some of the few volunteer search dog teams in the world,” she said.
There are two such teams in Campbell River and Courtenay, she said, adding there are two more in Victoria. The program, she continued, started in Alberta and today, handlers like Campbell River’s Kristin Drake have been all over the world, helping rescue people in times of trouble.
Drake, who works with her dog Wrangler, went to Haiti in 2009 to help after the devastating earthquake there. Some of the children at the school asked if she was able to help people there.
Drake carefully explained that she and Wrangler were only able to locate deceased people — but did say that the team she was working with did rescue a 50-year-old man who had survived the quake.
In the school gym, the handlers brought out their dogs and had them find students — and principal John Williams — who had carefully hidden themselves.
It didn’t take long for the well-trained rescue animals to locate their quarry.
The handlers then had student Brandon Nichol dress up in the searcher’s gear — overalls, boots, gloves and helmet — to demonstrate what it might be like to work with the dogs out in the field.
The dogs, explained Caumartin, think finding people is a game, with rewards to follow — making it easier for them to do the work it takes to find people in debris.
It’s their sensitive noses, she explained to the children, that makes it all possible. Her own dog, Sprocket, has been in training for one-and-a-half years. Wrangler has been doing the job for three years.
After the gym presentation, the handlers and their dogs went into each classroom to visit the students, answer questions and let the kids pet the friendly dogs.
“It’s great that we can sometimes get out to let people know who we are and what we are doing,” said Caumartin.
The CASDDA started in Alberta 10 years ago, she continued, adding just about any dog can be trained to do the work. It does, however, require dedicated people willing to put in the time and energy to keep them ready for the call.