By Julie Reardon
DOG DAY AFTERNOON
Perhaps you’ve seen them on the news, the hardworking search and rescue dog and handler teams that work to find missing persons. Few of us can forget the haunting images of the dogs and humans working late in the night desperately looking for survivors as they sorted through the horrific wreckage of the Twin Towers in 2001. But other than doing occasional educational demonstrations for schools and fairs, the search and rescue dog community shuns the limelight, and the members of the Virginia Search and Rescue Dog Association, based locally in Northern Virginia, are no exception.
“We can’t talk about specific rescues, because of privacy and the health information privacy act,” said one volunteer handler at a recent training session. Many missing persons are dementia or mental health patients; and some of the work VSRDA does is for locating human remains for ongoing criminal investigations.
The VSRDA is the Southeast’s oldest oldest air scenting wilderness search dog unit. Its members own and train their own dogs, and are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at no charge to the requesting government agency. Its members are highly trained volunteers that use dogs to locate missing persons in wilderness, disaster, human remains and water search and rescue/recovery missions. Each dog/handler team trains for a minimum of one year before becoming operational to insure a professional level of performance. All of VSRDA dog/handler teams are air scent trained to locate missing persons in wilderness situations; handler training includes advanced skills in such areas as emergency first aid, land navigation, and grid searching. Some members and dogs have had specialized training in disaster response; these members received their training from and are volunteer members of the Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue Team and can be deployed immediately on all natural or manmade disaster searches.
Specialty training and certification is held by some VSRDA members and their dogs for the location of human remains and related criminal evidence. And in 1979, VSRDA pioneered the use of canines for water recovery. Specific unit members and dogs are trained to locate subjects that are either partially or totally submerged. VSRDA can respond to requests involving any body of water including lakes and seashore.
In addition to the dogs’ training, each handler is certified in Advanced First Aid or as an Emergency Medical Technician. Handlers are also required to qualify in areas such as; land navigation, wilderness survival, search strategy and tactics, missing person behavior, and terrain analysis. Each dog works towards certification in various wilderness conditions. Dogs are also required to pass obedience and agility tests in addition to all their search and rescue training. VSRDA is a member of the American Rescue Dog Association (ARDA) the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR), and the Commonwealth of Virginia Search and Rescue Council (VASARCO).
A love of working with dogs and the outdoors is what draws people to train and apply for VSRDA certifications. According to members, the breed of dog is less important than its drive and motivation, although certain breeds are more naturally suited to the work. These include German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, and Labrador retrievers. VSDRA member dogs have also included Standard Poodles and Border Collies. “The dog has to be highly toy or play motivated,” explained Aaron P., one of the handlers at a recent training session. “The kind of dog that might be a real pain to live with if it doesn’t have a job and daily training.” Some successful search and rescue dogs have even been rescues—likely pet dogs that were given up because they were too busy and high maintenance for owners who didn’t train and work them regularly.
Members work with and train their dogs daily, usually beginning when the dog is a puppy. The training starts with basic obedience, the foundation for the specialized training the dog will learn later. Training philosophy is usually unique to the handler, since many are drawn by a love of working with dogs in general and have successfully trained dogs in other venues. Some use all positive training methods; others use a mix of positive and negative reinforcement. VSDRA president Stacy P., a native of Fauquier County, explained another difference: some of the wilderness search dogs are trained to sit and bark after they’ve located the missing person; others return to the handler to give the indication. “You train the method you want the dog to use,” she explained. She gave a demonstration of her own dog, Leah, a German Shephard who is trained to return to the handler to indicate a find. She had a friend hide in a bush, and sent Leah, who shot off like a rocket on this easy find. She sat once on locating the person, then returned to her handler, sat and barked to let her know of the find. All the handlers agreed that regardless of training method, you have to find something that motivates the dog, and use that as a reward for the tasks they perform. For some dogs, it’s a favorite toy, others like a game of tug. It’s clear from watching the dogs work that they live for this job.
Those that live nearby often get together weekdays after work, and on weekends; VSRDA holds more formal monthly training sessions at various rural properties at least once a month. They’re always looking for new ground to train on; ideally at least 100 acres, with water features and structures such as barns, and no hazards such as major roads and livestock.
For the handlers, clearly a love of the outdoors is part of the attraction, because they receive no compensation and in fact, all have regular “day jobs” and work with their dogs in their spare time. VSDRA relies on donations; as a federally recognized, volunteer supported organization; 100% of donations are tax-deductible and directly support the organization’s continued operation. This month, on Friday, June 17th, Foster’s Grill in Manassas is featuring “Burgers for K9s” from 4 to 9 pm; Foster’s will donate 20% of the proceeds of all purchases accompanied by the voucher (see website www.VSRDA.org for details) as well as other ways you can help.
VSDRA only responds to search calls from state and local agencies, mainly law enforcement; private individuals cannot initiate searches, nor does the VSDRA search for missing pets. . The members accept no compensation; this is an entirely volunteer organization. For more information or to make a donation, visit their website.