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Old October 3rd, 2006, 11:27 AM
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Dogs who save people from disasters

VANCOUVER -- Looking like a small, golden plane coming in for a landing, Cooper leaps into the doggy pool, legs spread and tail flying. He splashes down with a satisfactory whump, climbs out and jumps back into the pool over and over again.

Barkley prefers to sprawl in the sun, and, although he appears to be perfectly relaxed, he constantly watches his owner, Flynn Lamont, and the activity around him.

These two handsome golden retrievers seem like any playful pets, but Barkley, 10, and Cooper, 5, are more than Mr. Lamont's best friends. This father-and-son duo are two of the five dogs with Vancouver's Urban Search and Rescue.

When disaster strikes, be it as a result of a terrorist, hurricane, earthquake, mudslide or someone lost in the wilderness, these canines are there. With their keen sense of smell and ability to burrow into nooks and crannies too small for human rescuers, the dogs locate victims, dead or alive.

"My boys think all people carry toys and have treats for them," Mr. Lamont, manager and trainer of the USAR K-9 team, said. "If they didn't love people, why would they want to go and look for them?"

To the dogs, this life-or-death work is all a game. Their reward is a hug or a treat. Mr. Lamont said they will keep searching even when they are exhausted because they love the rewards.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks in the United States, dogs working in the ruins of the World Trade Center became depressed when they were unable to find survivors, he said. A volunteer hid in the rubble and after the dogs "found" him, they went back to work with renewed enthusiasm.

"A trained search-and-rescue dog's greatest need is to find people," explained Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and author of numerous books on dog behaviour, including his latest, Why Does My Dog Act that Way?

"In a dog's mind, every time he finds a person, good things happen to him."

Dr. Coren pointed out that dogs have a different view of the world because their noses are far more important to them than their eyes. The human nose has about five million scent receptors, while the average dog's nose has 225 million, he noted.

A good nose, however, isn't enough for an animal to become a search-and-rescue dog. The animals need to be curious, energetic, intelligent, bold, assertive and agile. They must also be sociable family pets.

Mr. Lamont, who has been a fire fighter with the Vancouver Fire Department for 27 of his 50 years -- all search-and-rescue work is volunteer -- believes that socializing a dog starts at birth and a "good-quality set of parents" helps.

"By six or eight weeks, the dog's mental development is set. From early on, they need lots of people handling them, so they learn that humans are good," Dr. Coren said, adding that socializing a puppy should start when they are three days old.

Even as puppies, the dogs must be adventurous and curious. Gauging a puppy's curiosity includes leaving it alone in an empty room to see if it sniffs around or simply lies down and goes to sleep. Another is to unfurl an umbrella suddenly, drop a metal pot or to roll a bright new tennis ball; a curious dog will want to examine and play with everything while others will shy away.

"They have to have drive, you can't teach them that," said Mr. Lamont, who has worked with dogs for 15 years. "The dog has to love doing this."

But teaching even a good dog takes patience. In the game called "runaway," the trainer holds on to a dog while his owner hides. The trainer says, "Where did they go?" and releases the dog to search.

"Once you've done this a couple of hundred times, the dog knows what is expected of him and anticipates his reward."

A dog's ability to connect behaviour to past events spans less than a second, Mr. Lamont pointed out, so rewards must be instant. "That's why there's no point in scolding your pet for something he did even five minutes ago; he has no idea what he's done wrong."

Mr. Lamont has trained Cooper to find live humans, while Barkley, who is getting older and tires more easily, is a cadaver dog. Mr. Lamont plans to breed Cooper this fall and choose one of his pups to train. "Then we'll have father, son and grandson."

The dogs were in New York a few weeks after the World Trade Center attack and in New Orleans the day after hurricane Katrina struck. Closer to home, they located a woman buried in a North Vancouver mudslide and found a newborn baby reported to have been thrown into dense bush. They check for people in burning buildings, find traffic victims who may have been thrown from a vehicle, and can locate drowning victims from their scent on the surface of the water. On average, their special talents are needed once a week.

"It's usually chaos at a disaster site," Mr. Lamont said. "Every situation is a highly emotional one. You have to assess everything, be clear and calm about the reality of a situation. It's always a team effort."
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