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  News from the Maryland Veterinary Medical Association                                                    Winter 2012

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Garo and Racker: Hometown Heroes

Elizabeth Kreitler and her two canine partners, Racker and Garo, are veterans of search and rescue. The dogs are her companions certainly, but have a much more important purpose. Racker and Elizabeth are members of the elite Virginia Task Force 1, part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s network of emergency responders certified in urban search and rescue (USAR). Each of the 28 FEMA task force units deploy with up to 73 people, four canines, and a comprehensive equipment cache. VA-TF1 is one of only two units that may deploy for international emergencies, as well as domestic; and Elizabeth and Racker have recently traveled to Haiti and Japan at the request of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to assist with rescue of living victims of the natural disasters in those countries.

Garo, a seven-year-old male, castrated German Shepherd Dog, is certified by the American Rescue Dog Association. His special skills and training enable him to detect human remains (HRD) on land or in water. Through the organization Search and Rescue Dogs of Maryland. Garo and Elizabeth assist official agencies with wilderness search and recovery services, primarily within the state of Maryland. Like many highly skilled volunteers Elizabeth and her dogs train long hours to develop and maintain their proficiency and certifications without financial gain, and often at meaningful personal expense.

Elizabeth’s motives seem clear: she genuinely wants to help people who need it, whether that is helping to rescue a trapped victim, or finding the remains of a loved one so that a grieving family can attain closure. She trains her dogs to do the work they were bred to do, and to be the best tools they can be to help people. Despite all the technological advances of the 21st century working dogs can do what sophisticated instruments or gadgets cannot: they can find unconscious or deceased victims, by identifying infinitesimally small amounts of human scent in the air and tracing it to the source.

Garo and Racker use airscenting to follow diffused or windborne particles back to the source, usually the missing victim, and then bark to indicate the find. Area search dogs typically work off-leash traversing wide areas of terrain, while the urban search and rescue (disaster search) dogs work on rubble piles associated with collapsed building structures.

Their agility and relatively smaller size permits them access to places that their handlers may not safely traverse. Atmospheric, wind, and current conditions influence their efficiency, and their range. The dogs are typically expected to work long shifts of 8-10 hours, even under adverse circumstances of heat or cold, so focus and stamina are key traits. Water recovery dogs like Garo search for drowning victims by boat, smelling the surface of the water, and then divers are dispatched to search the area they indicate.

According to Elizabeth the most successful dogs are usually those that were bred with the genetic foundation to work and be great athletes, as may be found within certain working lines of retrievers or herding breeds. They must be very driven dogs, for prey or a toy substitute; they should have solid temperaments and good nerve strength because these qualities affect how purely the drive can be expressed. They also must be sociable and possess an on-and-off switch. Elizabeth favors the German shepherd breed and currently works two shepherds, but the vast majority of active FEMA taskforce dogs are Labradors (59%) according to Disasterdog. org, the unofficial website of task force dog handler-members. Border collies, German shepherds, golden retrievers, and Belgian malinois are the other most common breeds of the 251 dogs tabulated.

Choosing the right candidate partner is very individual. Some handlers prefer to begin with an 8- to 12-week old puppy to raise for longer bonding, early training opportunities, and to avoid buying someone else’s bad habits, but Elizabeth points out that this approach is risky. One may invest many hours of training and time in a puppy who could have significant developmental orthopedic issues or temperament concerns that are not apparent until the dogs reach adolescence or adulthood. Racker, who is currently four years old, was purchased sight unseen from a German kennel as a green dog of 10 months of age, having been identified by a friend as a promising candidate with lots of drive. “Good dogs are hard to find,” she says and in “greater demand since 9-11.” Many other interest groups target the same dogs, such as military and law-enforcement groups; and civilians such as Elizabeth and other volunteers are challenged to pay the competitive prices, which may exceed $5000.

Handlers may begin their own training in advance of finding the right dog, as they must learn wilderness and survival tactics, first aid and basic orienteering and be certified as handlers. Their canine partners must also be certified by testing. For FEMA certification the canine candidate must be at least 18 months old. Wear and tear usually limits their productive careers to 5 to 7 years, so most dogs are retired near 8 years of age. Racker was a natural and was certified after about only a year of intensive training, so he is expected to have a long productive career. Despite Garo’s established pedigree and the success of his father as a search and rescue dog, Garo did not find a comfortable niche until he was moved into in HRD and water recovery.

Elizabeth has been into dogs since childhood, when she spent lots of time with her family’s pets, but her focused work with dogs has been a more recent engagement. Her professional pursuits have been diverse, beginning with work in advertising on Madison Avenue in New York, moving on to scuba diving instruction, and include a stint as a veterinary technician in a surgical specialty practice in Annapolis. She was affiliated with Search and Rescue Dogs of Maryland in the mid 90’s when then-president Garrett Dyer introduced her to the Virginia Task Force and mentored her dog-handling career. She counts his tutelage as one of the most important reasons that she and her dogs were able to become proficient so quickly in the field of search and rescue.

Currently Elizabeth devotes the majority of her day to training and to maintaining Racker and Garo as highly specialized working dogs or taking them on assignment. The dogs need consistent stimulation to maintain their edge, with simple daily exercises that may last only 30-40 minutes, combining play and search with toys, as well as basic obedience. Training on rock piles in quarries or on simulated rubble piles is less frequent, perhaps once or twice a week, but poorly captures the true challenges of the disaster setting. Only with solid experience can the dogs display their maximal potential. After their first year in the field she sees good dogs improve 100% as they learn and adapt to the rigors of the work. Trial by fire is likely how the good handlers improve, as well.

The dogs’ dedicated efforts are readily apparent to the local residents and to other emergency workers, and their appearance on site can be very inspiring. And while disaster work is hazardous space constraints are so tight on most missions that veterinarians are not routinely included. Veterinarians usually participate on a task force only if they are cross-trained as a canine search specialist or in another essential position. The unique medical needs of these working dogs are the focus of The Urban Search and Rescue Veterinary Group, veterinarians who train and drill with the teams and educate the handlers and other team members. These vets express their dedication to ensuring that the search and rescue dogs return home as healthy as they went out.

Fortunately many injuries are preventable by careful inspection, frequent bathing, cleaning of extremities, and eye and nose washes. Preventing dehydration is of paramount importance and avoiding heat exertion.

Minor toxin exposures can be routinely addressed with daily decontamination. Most soft tissue injuries, such as lacerations, can be tended to in the field by the team medic or by the handlers themselves. Elizabeth’s dogs have been very lucky, she notes, as they are healthy and have been rarely injured on the job. She did share an amusing anecdote about how poorly one of her dogs worked during training shortly after receiving an intranasal kennel cough vaccine—it seems the local effects of the vaccine temporarily disrupted that ultra-sensitive nose!

The hours are long and the pay largely nonexistent for rescue workers, but the work is gratifying, and there are successful rescues and recoveries. Elizabeth is ready to travel at a moment’s notice, and she may be away from her home and family in Annapolis for one to two weeks at a time, lucky to receive a clean bunk and fresh water when she gets to her destination. On the plus side, of course, is that every day is “Take your dog to work day.” She has had some amazing adventures with her dogs, and she deserves our admiration and respect. She is quick to share credit with her dogs, who she thinks are strong workers. We do too!

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Important Links from this article

Urban Search and Rescue Veterinary Group

FEMA Urban Search and Rescue

American Rescue Dog Association

Rescue Dogs of Maryland


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