Hero Dogs: How a Pack of Rescues, Rejects, and Strays Became America’s Greatest Disaster-Search Partners

Hero Dogs: How a Pack of Rescues, Rejects, and Strays Became America’s Greatest Disaster-Search Partners


I knew we have a tendency to were certain a show the moment I born the leash.

Murphy was off therefore quick her paws barely touched the bottom. Only sixteen weeks old, the Black Labrador was nowhere near her adult size, but her hips and chest were thick with corded muscle and every ounce of her body—every fiber it seemed—was engaged in the run. She blasted across the training area near Bakersfield, her legs a blur, kicking up rooster tails of red California dirt. A few yards in front of her, and growing ever closer, was an odd conglomerate of large blue plastic tubes, lined up in a row like someone had laid down a giant pan flute on its side. The tubes were as wide as large oil drums and stretched over ten feet long. Somewhere in those tubes was a person in need of rescue.

It was 1993 and I’d been training to become a canine search-and-rescue (SAR) handler for a few years. I’d done my part. Now the determination of who would be my partner was up to Murphy.

She suddenly cut right so fast her tongue maintained its former trajectory and flapped out to the side like a pink flag. As she flew past the first couple sealed tubes, I felt my stomach knot in doubt. Perhaps I’d been overconfident coming into the session. Perhaps she wasn’t ready for this level of search yet.

Murphy had been seven weeks old when I’d purchased her from a family who professionally bred hunting dogs. The transaction had been quick—just long enough for the breeders to give advice on feeding patterns—then the tiny pompom of a pup had been placed in my arms like a furry receipt. Silent and docile, she’d slept all the way home. I was a little worried. Search dogs need to be bursting with energy. Cute as she was, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d purchased a dud search dog. I didn’t wonder long.

I mixed her a bowl of the prescribed food while she sat uninterested in the corner. Without much thought, I lowered the bowl toward the kitchen floor.

Murphy exploded out of the corner like a rocket. This dark projectile launched toward me and punched the food bowl out of my hands. The kibble sprayed into the air and rained down onto the kitchen tile. I was frozen in disbelief. Murphy was not. She morphed from rocket into vacuum cleaner and sucked down every morsel of food within minutes, leaving the kitchen tile looking as if nothing had ever happened. Murphy licked her chops and, with a yawn, retired behind her indifferent puppy façade. My shock gave way to glee. It looked like I might have a search dog on my hands after all.

Nine weeks later I was watching Murphy zip across our volunteer group’s SAR proving grounds. A number of Swiss disaster search dog trainers had flown in to teach advanced canine search techniques and evaluate some of our up-and-coming dogs. When it came to canine search, the Swiss were the gold standard. They pioneered canine search around 1800, patrolling the Great St. Bernard Pass and other high peaks in Switzerland for lost outdoorsmen. If Murphy truly had what it took to be a search dog, the Swiss trainers would know.

Now, one of the trainers waited, hidden in a blue tube, as Murphy closed in. My dog would need to complete two tasks. First, locate the tube where the trainer was hiding and give a bark alert—bark consistently at the hidden human until that person was revealed. After she succeeded in locating the “victim,” Murphy would still need to show a continued drive—what we call “prey drive”—until she got her reward. In her case, the reward, or “prey,” being a worn-out chew toy. These tasks would show not only that Murphy could use her nose to find a buried human, but also be motivated to continue searching after the initial victim was found. Both tasks would need passing grades if I wanted to consider her for serious search dog training. There was no middle ground.

Murphy zeroed in on the middle tube and stopped dead. Her tail started lashing back and forth and she launched into a chorus of barks. I heard the muffled praise from the hidden trainer. Murphy kept up her consistent bark alert. So far, she was performing a textbook search. One box checked, one to go.

The lid of the blue tube popped open. We’d now see if Murphy’s drive would hold strong until she received her reward. Time seemed to pause as the trainer began to squirm out of the tube.

Then Murphy charged forward. The trainer’s feet hadn’t even cleared the lid as Murphy plowed over him and into the tube, searching for the chew toy he was hiding. I heard the delighted hooting of the trainer as he wrestled and teased Murphy with the toy, making her work just a little more. Then both emerged, the trainer smiling broadly and Murphy strutting triumphantly with the toy dangling from her mouth. It was beautiful.

“You can make many mistakes with this one,” the trainer said with a thick German accent, patting Murphy’s head.

He meant the dog had such a strong prey drive, the handler wouldn’t need to do much except get out of the way. In search dog parlance, he’d just given Murphy the equivalent of an A+. She still had a long way to go before she was deployment ready, but there was now no doubt in my mind Murphy was a special dog.

What I didn’t know was that, for what was looming over the horizon, she would have to be.


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