Search & Rescue

Crisis City: Working a Search Dog

One of the amazing things about working a dog is the opportunity to travel and meet people that love search and rescue as much as I do! In October, a group of us traveled to Salina, Kansas and trained for two days in Crisis City.

crisis-cityBefore I started search work, I didn’t know places like this existed. Crisis City is a facility built so first responders can train for disasters. Police officers might use it to practice active shooter scenarios. We go to practice searching for victims trapped in different settings.

In Crisis City there are two rubble piles, a train, an Urban Village made up of stacked Conex containers and filled with household items, a wood pile and agility equipment. Every dog and handler team was assigned to a group with one experienced leader. Our group started at Urban Village at eight in the morning. Every ninety minutes we rotated. It’s an incredible opportunity to train all day long in new locations.

Turbo on the rubble pile.
Turbo on the rubble pile.


Hiding a victim in the train.


Ava alerting on a victim.


Su and Turbo in front of the Urban Village.
Su and Turbo in front of Urban Village.


Rook searching the wood pile.
Rook searching the wood pile.

First off, Kansas in October was REALLY COLD. I brought layers and gloves, but I was not prepared for the bone chilling cut through my clothing numb my face temperature. Of course, it didn’t bother our dogs. Kinsey bounded out of the hotel room and down the stairs to our car each morning. While we set up problems, she sat in the passenger’s seat and stared at me. She could not wait to get out of the car to work! That was my absolute favorite thing about the trip. Her joy for her job.

Usually dogs are crated while they wait to search, but the rental car was too small! So, Kinsey got to ride shotgun.

The hardest part about the trip was watching Turbo, a black female lab that’s been training for about a year, work. The trip to Kansas was her first, and Su wanted to see how she’d handle it because she had concerns about her nerve strength.

If we’re ever deployed, we will travel with our dogs by bus or plane to an unfamiliar place and be expected to search. Not all dogs can handle the stress. They’re frightened by foreign places or people. They’re upset by the flight. They refuse to eat. Whatever the problem, when we arrive at a disaster the dog is not ready to work. If this is the case, the dog can’t be a search dog. So, Kansas was a good time to test Turbo’s ability to handle stress. How would she search after traveling to someplace new?

Su and Turbo preparing to search the train.
Su and Turbo getting ready to search the train.

Unfortunately, the answer was not very well. Turbo started her career as a diabetic alert dog, but had too much energy for the job. We hoped she’d be perfect for search. But, when she first arrived she was so quiet! It took her months to learn to bark for the toy. Eventually she did, but it wasn’t something that came easily to her.

When we got to Kansas and started to run problems, Turbo found the victims, but wouldn’t bark. It was her stress response. All the travel and change was too much, so she stopped barking. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work if you want to be a search dog. When you find a victim, the alert is a bark. If the dog doesn’t bark, we don’t know where to look.

So, it was a hard weekend for Su and Turbo. But Su did what she had to do. Search wasn’t the right fit for Turbo, so she went live with Su’s brother.

I know that to some dog owners sending your dog to a new home is unimaginable. I will tell you, I’ve done it, and it’s hard. But when you find the right dog, search work becomes an incredible partnership that’s worth the anguish of parting with a friend.

Dogs. They’ll break your heart.

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