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Gradually this game gets harder for the pup. The person will hide in a place that’s not as obvious. “They start to learn that they have to use their nose, and they start to smell because they can’t see where the person went, and so that keeps building up and the environment gets more challenging,” Dr. Otto says.
There are usually several people watching, so the dogs quickly learn that they have to find the specific person who’s the source of the reward — not just any person who’s hidden.
“We really don’t understand exactly how the dog figures all this out, but they do. It’s really cool,” Dr. Otto says. “It’s really important that they don’t know who is hidden because in a disaster situation, we don’t know who’s missing.”
As you might imagine, all of this work means search and rescue dogs need to be in tip-top physical shape, too — and they require the obedience to work offleash in difficult locations.
The WDC prepares them for physical challenges and works to prevent injuries by helping them develop core strength like a gymnast.
“We do a lot of puppy pilates, core strength building exercises, flexibility, balance — we have a whole fitness program we call Fit to Work that we teach them, and all of our dogs have regular fitness sessions,” Dr. Otto says.
One of the fun parts for the dogs is swimming, which is another way for them to build their core strength. When they get a bit older, they work on stamina and endurance.
Obedience training is another important piece of the puzzle in the puppies’ liberal arts and masters degrees. The dogs need to be able to follow instructions and stop or turn on a dime for their safety.
Once they are 18 months old, they're eligible to get their national certification.
So far, eight search and rescue dogs have graduated from the WDC, including some who are trained to find human remains.
A few of the dogs serve on multiple disaster response teams, at the national and local levels. One of the graduates worked at the scene of the May 2015 Amtrak crash in Philadelphia that killed eight people and injured hundreds. But the others — luckily, Dr. Otto points out — haven’t yet had the opportunity to be deployed to a major disaster.
While some dogs graduate from the WDC and start daily jobs working for the TSA or doing police work, for search and rescue dogs, their job is to continue to train — just in case.
“They train, and they train and they train and they train — they train 20 hours a week, every other weekend sometimes,” says Dr. Otto. “It’s really an intense commitment by these handlers, and a lot of these handlers, this is their volunteer time — they don’t get paid unless it’s a deployment. These are really dedicated and committed folks."
But as long as the training remains a big game, these dogs will continue to love every minute of it.
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