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A Dog's Sniffer Could Be Your Best Friend in Disaster


When devastating earthquakes hit Haiti, Japan and Nepal, rescue dogs were among the first to arrive.

American search-and-rescue teams and their specially trained dogs also helped during U.S. hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

Ron Sanders and his 6-year old Labarador, Pryse, were part of a U.S. team to help find survivors in Nepal.

Sanders, a retired firefighter, says Pryse and the other special canines, are essential to the team.

“The dogs obviously have a wonderful sense of smell. So they can quickly determine where the scent is coming from and hone in that location that we need to dig down.”

The dogs can also navigate quickly through collapsed buildings and squeeze through tight spots to find victims.

For the dogs, the job is a fun and playful adventure. “They want to go find that person, to play with that person."

But becoming a rescue dog is serious business. To become certified, the dogs train long and hard for six to 12 months.

What helps them get there is lots of practice.

They train in Virginia. A former prison has been made to look like a disaster site. The dogs learn to follow hand signals and voice commands while running on narrow planks of wood. They go up and down ladders, walk over rough terrain, and search in the rubble for survivors.

Finding one, which they almost always do, is the ultimate reward.

"So we're looking for that ability to play, intelligence, great agility, of course, because we're going to ask them to climb on things that are very unnatural for a dog to climb on.”

The dogs also train on helicopters because roads might be impassable in a disaster. The dogs are taught to get in and out of a helicopter while it's on the ground and running. They become used to the noise, the vibrations, and the wind from the helicopter blades.

They are picked up from the ground in a special harness, too, and lifted through the air into the helicopter.

“It teaches them to trust us and to know that it will be all right,” says Sanders.

At the end of the day, it's all about trust between the trainers and the dogs, says Sanders. Being trained and ready can make the difference between life and death, he says.

I'm Mario Ritter.

This story was first reported by Julie Taboh of VOA News. Kathleen Struck adapted the story.

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Words in This Story

sniffer -- n. slang for 'nose'

hone -- v. sharpen, refine or perfect

certified -- v. officially recognize

terrain -- n. a stretch of land, specially with ups and downs

ultimate -- adj. final or best

impassable -- adj. impossible to travel over

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