In May, Colorado Task Force 1 offered an open training weekend for search dogs and their handlers. So, if you could get to Denver, you could use Colorado’s enormous pile of rubble to train from 8 in the morning until 4 o’clock in the afternoon.
About thirty-five live find search dogs and their handlers came from across the country to work. We were broken up into groups, and set loose in assigned sections of the rubble pile on Saturday. Every two hours, we rotated.
The rubble pile in Colorado was formed from an old runway. The chunks of cement were HUGE, and most of them were impossible to move. Our host, Pam, a member of CO-TF 1, helped us find holes to place victims all day long. (Pam was friendly, funny and helpful. We couldn’t have asked for a nicer leader.) All told, each of the dogs in our group ran about twenty search problems on Saturday. The problems varied in length from one to three victims. And on the first problem we got an unusual distraction–a caged chicken.
As I wiggled between blocks of cement to take my turn as a victim, I couldn’t help but be amazed by the fact that wherever we go, the dogs are thrilled to search. It doesn’t matter that we flew halfway across the country the day before or that there was a chicken on the pile or that they had to find strangers, our dogs ran across the rubble and barked at people that were trapped. The weekend made me feel more confident about our ability to help people if we’re ever deployed to an actual disaster, and Kinsey and I are a better team because of it.
Exhausted from the end of the school year, I fell asleep in the cool cement hole, helmet against a flat slab of concrete. The fact the problem included three victims and two of the dog running were inexperienced (slow) led to a long nap. Unfortunately, there is nothing quite like a Labrador barking in your ear to drag you out of a dream. My response to the bark was automatic–out went a piece of fire hose and we tugged until the handler arrived.
When we go on these trips, everyone I train with is a die hard. Meaning we trained all day long, ate our lunch on site, and moved from one hole to the next without ceasing. At the end of the day we limped back to the hotel, bruises on our shins, dirt down our necks, to shower. On this trip, we did have the strength to meet up for an Italian dinner. Tiramisu never tasted so good. Then early to bed, so we could get up with the sun to start again.
On Sunday, CO TF-1 set up the largest search problem I’ve ever worked. To give you a comparison, the problems we set up at home take our dogs about ten minutes. For the Certification Evaluation our dogs are allotted twenty minutes per pile. Kinsey is pretty fast, and it took her 40 minutes to work the pile on Sunday. So, the Colorado pile is massive in comparison to anything we’ve ever done.
As we lined up to wait our turn, I could tell my girl Kinsey was excited. How? Bad behavior. When I told her “down” she would lay down for about three seconds and then roll over and rub her back in the dirt and kick her legs in the air. Technically, I guess that was being in down and yes it was super cute, but honestly? Was it that hard to wait? When I did let her up, she scratched at my legs, anxious to get going.
After what seemed an eternity to Kinsey, we were up. The first victim took some time. Kinsey would range out, and then look back at me because she didn’t smell anything. And, honestly, we don’t usually work so long without finding a victim. But, we kept at it. When the wind was right and she walked into the scent cone, she flew over the rubble. She barked and tugged with the victim until I could navigate my way between chunks of cement to reach her. Not that she minded, a game of tug with a piece of fire hose is one of her favorite pastimes. Kinsey found victims two and three without much help from me. Then I walked her to a doggy pool to cool off.
The fourth victim was a bit of a struggle. She was buried low, and Kinsey had to get down into a narrow scent cone to solve the problem. That’s when we worked together. She would check back with me, and I’d tell her over, or back, and as long as she wasn’t on human scent, she’d listen. Once she smelled victim four, her tail began to wag, and she circled, focus total. The final victim was hidden in an alert tube, the perfect way to end a long and challenging problem.
Search done, we checked in at the vet station. The vet tech took Kinsey’s temperature, a little hot at 104.5. (Normal range is between 101-102.5.) So, I walked her to the doggie pool. She fit in snugly next to her buddy Rook. Once we released the dogs from the pool, they took a toy and were off, running, tumbling, joyous. They’d work the problem again if they could.
Then it was back on the plane, back to the reality of library books and middle school children.
Thank you to Colorado Task Force One for an amazing open training weekend!