Otis, a 3-year-old black lab, tugs at the leash held by his trainer, Jeff Sells.
The dog’s quick, excited breaths are visible during the early morning training exercise at an abandoned four-story building in Coeur d’Alene.
“You ready to go?” Sells asks the animal.
Otis, one of 300 dogs in the nation to receive FEMA certification for urban search and rescue, jumps up and down to let Sells know that he is ready to work.
Sells releases his grip on the leash and Otis quickly maneuvers through the rooms on the second story, identifying scents he can “see” and ultimately searching for the one he can’t. Buildings are a challenge for the dogs since scents can travel and linger in ceilings and pipes.
But Otis isn’t fazed. He quickly finds the “victim,” who rewards the dog’s success with positive words and a rowdy game of tug-of-war.
“The dogs sometimes seem to have a better grasp of this than we do,” Sells said with a smile.
After 9/11, a federal mandate required each state to develop teams equipped to respond to building collapses and special rescue scenarios. Idaho received federal funding to respond to the mandate, and in 2005, the Coeur d’Alene Fire Department K9 team was created.
“Our primary mission is to support the Idaho State Search and Rescue team,” Sells said.
The team was sent to observe FEMA testing shortly afterward, and Sells said they met two teams – from Washington and Arizona – that quickly became mentors. It was the Arizona team that gave Sells the idea to establish a nonprofit, Idaho Disaster Dogs, as a way to raise money to purchase and care for the rescue dogs.
Sells said he and the eight other members of the team have refined the program more and more over the years. One of the biggest learning experiences has been how the team chooses the dogs.
When the program began, the team used any dog they could. Now, Sells said they have a selection process for acquiring the 7-week-old puppies that will eventually find and rescue victims.
“We assess how well they interact with people, how motivated they are with a toy and also do a medical screening,” Sells said. “That all translates into a dog that has a very high drive.”
During training, Sells and his team focus on ingraining what he calls “victim loyalty” into the dogs. The “victims” in training scenarios play the most important role; when the dog finds them, it is the victim’s responsibility to reward the dog with a game of tug-of-war.
“That dog knows when he finds the victim, he is going to play the biggest game of tug-of-war ever,” Sells said. “It makes them go non-stop. Their whole focus in life is finding that victim.”
The team varies the location of their weekly training. Throughout the winter, they use the empty building in Coeur d’Alene and also occasionally train the dogs for an avalanche scenario. When the weather improves, a local sanitation company, Waste Management, provides the team with rubble piles.
Over the course of the training, the dogs and their trainers become close. Each duo must work together in order to successfully accomplish their job.
“It’s a special bond you form with your partner,” Sells said. “It’s rewarding, seeing your dog be successful and doing something important.”
Since the program’s inception, the team has been placed on standby to assist in searching for victims of Hurricane Sandy, the tsunami in American Samoa and the earthquake in Haiti. Locally, the team has been called upon by law enforcement agencies to search for victims in heavily wooded areas.
The city of Coeur d’Alene provides the team with enough funding to send members to various trainings or certification tests as well as buy food for the dogs.
Purchasing of the future rescue animals is done through donations to the Idaho Disaster Dogs nonprofit. They can be made through United Way or at the Coeur d’Alene Fire Department Administration Offices. Get & Go Gourmet, 270 E. Neider Ave., Coeur d’Alene, also accepts donations and donates their tips to the program.
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