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Search Dogs are Ready to Rescue

Search Dogs are Ready to Rescue

Bret Patterson and his dog, Hayden, go through a three-hour training session last week in Dallas. In one exercise, Hayden found the "victim" in eight seconds.

Fort Worth Star Telegram via YellowBrix

March 31, 2010

DALLAS — The challenge for Hayden was to find Dallas fire Capt. Laurel Pitman in a pile of concrete blocks as smoke filled the air and strong winds blew.

When his handler let him go, the 2-year-old Labrador-Chesapeake Bay retriever made just one circle around the debris.

It took him eight seconds to sniff out Pitman.

“Oh, he works so fast,” said his handler, Bret Patterson, one recent morning at the Dallas Fire & Rescue Training Academy. “He will work his heart out to find someone.”

That’s the goal for Hayden and three other dogs in the new Texas Task Force 2 Urban Search & Rescue team. Once the dogs are certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency — perhaps in the next few months — the search team will join the 12 existing Texas disaster search teams to find people anywhere.

The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation donated the dogs in January to Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth and the Dallas and McKinney fire departments. The dogs themselves were rescued from animal shelters. Hayden has a scar over his muzzle, possibly because a previous owner wired it shut.

Hayden and Patterson are one of the few teams in the state to represent a hospital. Patterson, 39, is a paramedic.

“I had been looking to do something outside of the emergency room, and this opportunity came up,” he said.

The team also includes Pitman and her dog, Sonic; Dallas fire Lt. Patti Krafft and Hula; and McKinney firefighter/paramedic Keri Grant and Tucker.

Better than any technology

The nonprofit search dog foundation was founded in 1996 to strengthen emergency response by providing and training search dogs for free, mostly to fire departments. It has 70 active teams that have worked at 67 disasters, including 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina, according to the foundation.

Seven teams were deployed to Haiti after the January earthquake; the dogs found 10 people trapped in the rubble.

“Texas is prone to tornadoes and hurricanes, and no technology can match a dog’s ability and a firefighter’s skill in finding people caught” by a storm, said Debra Tosch, the foundation’s executive director, in a statement. “Thanks to an extraordinary sense of smell and ability to safely navigate shifting, uneven terrain, a dog can find survivors faster and more safely than any other tool in the first responder’s toolbox.”

The foundation trained Hayden and other dogs for eight months. As a group, the team now trains three to four days a month. The handlers each try to work their dogs on their own every day.

“The hardest part of this has been getting to know each other,” Patterson said. “He’s trying to figure out what I know, and I’m trying to figure out what he knows.”

The new team will continue training for several months until they are certified.

“They all volunteered because of their love to help others in need,” said Dallas fire Capt. John Ostroski, program manager for Texas Task Force 2. “They have assumed a huge responsibility — from training their dog, to caring for it, to sharing it and ultimately putting it to work when called upon.”