FEMA’s working dogs love training and doing their jobs
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has over 20,000 working agents, 360 of which are canine. This elite group of certified detection dogs are trained to find survivors in disasters or human remains. 35 of these canine agents were deployed after the devastating wildfires in Maui this summer. Consisting of primarily Labradors, German Shepherds, and Springer Spaniels, along with some mixed breeds, these very good employees of the federal government love nothing more than to do a very good job. And for their excellent efforts, the dogs are rewarded with food or a special toy of their choosing. In what was arguably the best day of work ever, NPR recently got to shadow a training session in Baltimore and reported the scene on All Things Considered:
Very good dogs doing very good work: At the training site outside Baltimore, Maryland Task Force One is putting its dogs through their paces. Victoria Ledwell is at the helm, working as both the canine coordinator and a dog handler for FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue squad… “I love this part of it,” Ledwell says as she gestures toward a dog doing drills. “They love what they’re doing and I love watching that. … You’ll see them come off the pile after they’ve done a search and they’ve been successful. Some of them will carry their toy with them, and they’re so proud and they’ll show it off to you.”
Eyes on the prize: Typically it’s a specific toy that the dog chose itself. The dog only gets it as a reward during training and missions. When handlers and their dogs are deployed, each has to pack that special toy. “My last dog had what we called ‘the flying squirrel’,” Ledwell said. “It was like a floppy Frisbee, and it didn’t fit well into pockets. But it didn’t matter that it was hard for me to carry, because for him that was important. I had to make it work.”
See Pager: Pager is an excitable boy who likes to chew things and lick faces. He’s a big Labrador from a kennel in Maine and was sent to a “puppies behind bars” program at just 8 weeks old, where he would’ve been trained for police or wounded veterans programs. But Pager was too rambunctious and high-energy. That’s how he ended up alongside his handler, Joshua Kurland, a canine search specialist with this task force.
See Pager run: In case of instability in a pile of rubble, dogs sometimes search while their humans stand on solid ground, so handlers like Kurland have to be able to control them from a safe distance. “Pager, hop up!” Kurland shouts as Pager barrels toward the wooden platform and jumps up, only to slide off due to the morning dew. “Pager, back!” After a few tries, Pager gets the hang of it — hopping up when told, then turning around and sitting, waiting for Kurland’s approval. “Pager, come!” He dashes back. “Good boy!” Kurland rewards Pager with his special toy — a tug with a rope on the end — and they play fetch in the field as his reward.
See Pager rescue a person from a pile of rubble: The team puts on helmets and waits around a massive pile of concrete to send Pager in for another drill. Two people are hiding in the rubble — one volunteer has carefully lowered himself into a concrete tube that’s surrounded by bricks and broken slabs for the rescue simulation. Throughout the rubble are “distractors,” such as bags of dirty laundry and food — anything to try to throw the dogs off the scent of finding someone. Kurland takes off Pager’s leash and collar and he gets to work. He darts across the pile, nose down, homing in. Within minutes, he’s barking, alerting Kurland that he found someone until Kurland carefully makes his way over and rewards him.
See Pager do it again! He struggles a bit to find the next person, going back and forth, passing the hiding spot a few times before eventually finding it. Once he begins barking, the volunteer in the tube rewards Pager with his toy and they get into an enthusiastic game of tug of war. A group of tough handlers in uniform, watching stoically, immediately melt when Pager makes his rescue. As he makes his way back off the pile, they collectively raise their voices an octave to congratulate Pager with pets and baby talk. To the team, that’s potentially another life saved. But to Pager, he’s just a very good boy doing his job.
Well yes of course the tough officers had to coo and fawn over Pager! Who did a good job? Pager did a good job! Cause he’s a good boy who saves lives and we love him and yes now it’s time to play, young man! We know our pups love baby talk, even when they’re sophisticated agents of the United States federal government. Returning readers will know how much I love My Girl, the chihuahua-dachshund rescue I’ve shared the past ten years of my life with. I love her, truly I do. But I don’t care if the trainer had filet mignon hidden on him, My Girl would not jump through obstacles courses to claim the prize. She earns the reward by merely existing, thank you very much. She’ll just stand back and engage in some shrill yipping until the
waiter person comes to her with the food. And it’s impossible to try and shame her over her lack of altruism. “Hero, shmero, just give me the food, Lady.”
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