Nosey Heroes

September 26, 2012 in General

It’s very early on a Sunday, 4 a.m. to be more precise, when the earth starts shaking and in less than a minute, the neighbourhood is reduced to a mass of rubble and collapsed buildings. It’s a magnitude-6.0 earthquake! People scramble from their beds out onto the streets – a place of relative safety. Sadly not all are fast enough. There are people trapped in the ruins, some could even be injured, and a race against time to rescue them starts. But how to find them? Searching manually, it could take days to find these people, and while special tools exist to pinpoint humans buried deep in the rubble, a lot of time is still needed to cover the whole area.

U.S.A.R. K9

Enter the search dogs, also referred to as U.S.A.R. K9 (Urban Search And Rescue canines). Dogs have a sense of smell thousands of times better than that of a human, and are able to distinguish between different scents very easily – something that is very useful to search and rescue teams! In fact dog and handler teams are among the first to be deployed on the accident site. These dogs follow the scents of live humans (or dead people in the case of cadaver search dogs) and guide their handler to a place where the scent is strongest. It may not be a precise location, even because the scent may travel under the rubble and exit some distance away from the person underneath. However, now that an approximate location is found, tools like victim sound detectors, infrared sensors and search cameras may be used effectively to locate the victim precisely. Dogs may also use their sense of hearing to help them finding a person, however their nose is definitely their forte!


So how are dogs trained to search for people? Dogs just love to please their owners. They will do everything to be praised, petted, played with and given treats – and that is exactly what they will get when they find the ‘victim’ for us. It all boils down to a game of hide and seek with play and treats at the end of a successful search. The first stages of training start with the ‘victim’ running off with the dog’s favourite toy and remaining visible. The dog is released, runs off to the victim and gets to play with the toy. In later stages, the victim is not visible, so that the dog starts using scent to find. Eventually, the game starts to be extended gradually such that the dog starts barking for its toy – this is important as on an accident site the dog may move out of site of its handler, and so the barking would lead the handler to the dog (and the victim).

Training continues with more difficult conditions to mimic a real accident site. Moving confidently on rubble and stones, ignoring the sound and vibration of heavy machinery and ignoring rescue workers or other people on site all have to be addressed throughout the training. In parallel with search training, dogs need to be taught obedience and interpreting commands and signals. This is because an accident site is a dangerous place, and the handler may need to take care of the safety of the dog and give it commands from a distance to avoid possible dangers.

So how long does it take to train a search dog?

The time required depends on a lot of factors such as the dog’s willingness to ‘work’, the age of the dog at start of training and the dog’s ability to use smell. The most important factors are however the skills of the trainer and also the time dedicated to regular training. Training a dog to ‘working standards’ may be measured in months.

We should not think, however, that there’s just the dog to train. The handler has an important role, both while training the dog and also while on a real search. As already mentioned, the handler has to take care of the safety of the dog. The way a search is planned has a big effect on the time it takes for the dog to find the victim, or if it finds the victim at all. The handler also has to learn to interpret the dog’s behavior during the search, and the clues it gives. A handler will normally take a couple of years to reach a good standard.

Earthquakes? In Malta?

Looking back at history, thankfully, there’s only one major earthquake recorded which caused substantial damage. Yet, an earthquake cannot be excluded, and it would be foolish not to prepare for such an eventuality. The introduction to this article is in fact a small description of the May earthquake in northern Italy – not too far from us when you think about it. Earthquakes are not the only incidents where search dogs may be required, however. Buildings and structures may collapse for other reasons, trapping persons underneath. An example of this is the recent collapse of a structure at the Seabank Hotel, Mellieha (March, 2012) – the Emergency Fire and Rescue Unit was involved in the search and rescue operation in this event. In this case, search dogs were used in the initial stages of the search operation. Sadly, the person trapped underneath the structure was eventually found dead.

Dogs may also be used to search for missing persons, who might have wandered off and got lost. This technique is called tracking and is similar to urban searches, but the dog is first given a scent and encouraged to find and follow only that scent.

Some dogs are trained to find cadavers. Again, the basics of training are quite similar to that of U.S.A.R dogs, except that scents used during training are not those of live people, of course.

How does E.F.R.U. fit in all this?

The Emergency Fire and Rescue Unit has a team of dedicated volunteers that form the E.F.R.U. K9 unit. This team assists the Civil Protection Department’s Dog Section, by helping to take care of the CPD’s dogs – cleaning, feeding and training. They also help take care of the premises. Apart from that, some members also have their own dog, that they train for search and rescue. While all this requires a certain commitment, energy and responsibility, all members will gladly agree that in the end it is very satisfying.

Joe Bonnici
EFRU Rescuer & K9 Handler