The rubble of Oklahoma City was still vivid in my mental rearview when I began considering training rescued dogs to be search dogs.
It was early 1996, and I was struggling to get my newly minted National Disaster Search Dog Foundation off the ground. I had two friends volunteering part-time as my staff. The budget for our nonprofit was essentially the money left in my savings account, and the donations from a few friends.
The road ahead would be a long one if I planned to train one search dog team for every victim in Oklahoma City. I knew the first step in following my vision would be finding the right dogs. Simple on paper, but infinitely complex in practice.
Murphy would’ve been a great model if I could pay for professionals to breed and select dogs, but that’s thousands of dollars our nonprofit didn’t have. My foundation would need every penny for training dogs, not purchasing them.
Donations to a new nonprofit without a proven track record were unlikely. My only option would be taking dogs that nobody wanted: The rejects of the service world. The homeless strays. The unadoptables.
Rescuing misfit service and shelter dogs would obviously be a benevolent move, but the option was risky at best. If I wanted successful search dogs, I would have to keep my emotions in check and make unbiased assessments to ensure every dog met every standard for selection.
IT TOOK ME almost seven years of hard training to develop what I would call a master’s-degree-level of knowledge on canine disaster search. I felt confident when it came to recognizing good search dog candidates. Still, I couldn’t say with certainty that rescue dogs would be able to become disaster search dogs. And if they could, would I be able to replicate success 168 times? Most rescue dogs go through so much, physically and psychologically, would they even have enough left to make it through training?
For a search dog, the nose is vital. There’s no getting around that fact. But the ability to follow a scent trail is only the beginning. Just because a dog can smell it, doesn’t necessarily mean the dog will want to find it. To seriously consider rescue dogs as candidates, I would need to screen for the dog’s prey drive—their ability and willingness to seek out a target, usually a thrown toy, again and again and again without fail. Completing the game and earning the toy would have to be their Holy Grail. We could then shape that drive into seeking a trapped human.
The other critical ingredient I would have to screen for would be physical ability. One reason my Murphy was such an extraordinary search dog was her physical gifts. She had the agility of a gymnast. She could flow over rubble piles like black water.
The hourglass is turned for a victim as soon as the building falls or the car crashes. Speed can mean life. Any rescue dogs I considered would have to match Murphy’s agility and stamina on a rubble pile without hesitation, and have the drive to repeat the task multiple times. And these qualities would only get the candidate into the stadium, not out onto the playing field. The final ingredient—the make or break factor—was somewhat less tangible.
I’d learned firsthand that disaster sites were only one level north of hell. You’re dealing with Mother Nature’s wrath or the equally sinister artificial equivalent. Anything stepping into that world inherits chaos and confusion. There’d be helicopters and airplanes transporting teams or circling the disaster site. Heavy machinery clearing rubble. Power tools and breaching equipment screeching and clawing away at blocked passages. Screams and yells, tears, injured victims, dead bodies.
I remember on my first day searching the Oklahoma City debris field, Murphy and I and our partner team happened into a collapsed room of the building’s lower floor. The neutral gray and tan tones characteristic of most federal office paint schemes gave way to vibrant blues and yellows. The debris started to contain shattered plastic of other bright colors. At first I was perplexed.
Had we somehow wandered into a neighboring children’s toy store? Murphy gave a hesitant alert bark, meaning she’d located human scent, but the victims were deceased. The terrible reality set in. We were in the building’s preschool. Nineteen of the bombing’s victims had been children.
I don’t care how prepared you think you are, something like that will hit you like a hammer. Such experiences weigh heavily on handlers, and in turn, weigh heavily on their search dogs. This was the area I had perhaps the greatest concern for training rescues. There’d be no room for skittish behavior or ebbing will in a search dog; lives depend on her maintaining focus on her target, her prey.
Successful search dogs need to maintain that amped-up prey hyperdrive that never wavers even against the most extreme distractors. Not many dogs are built this way—rescues or professionally bred.
My initial tests could weed out rescues that didn’t possess basic prey drive and physical ability, but the true measure of the dog probably wouldn’t be realized until advanced training, where more of a disaster’s chaos could be simulated.
In other words, I would have to trust my intuition if candidates passed the basic tests and try to see a level deeper—if the dog had the grit and heart to handle a disaster search. Add all of these requirements together and we’re talking about 1 percent of dogs in America.
AS THE WINTER of 1996 thawed to spring, I had yet to find a single candidate. I was running out of time and options. Risky as it might be, if rescue dogs had what I thought was the right stuff for the SDF, I would have to trust my instincts and roll the dice.
If I was wrong, and my foundation’s first team of dogs failed in training, my vision would likely die on the vine.