New Mexico's Pet ResourceWINTER 2002



Text by Freddi Hetler and photo by Ben Mater (APNM)

September 11th. It's one of those dates that will always bring to mind where you were when you witnessed the destruction of the World Trade Center and the tremendous damage to the Pentagon. As hours became days and days, weeks, the world watched as common people performed uncommonly brave deeds.

"That's our job. That's what we do." Those were words spoken by an exhausted New York firefighter when asked how the men could enter those burning and collapsing towers. A week later on September 18, a team of 62 volunteers with the New Mexico Task Force One, along with four dogs certified in urban disaster search and rescue operations, arrived in Washington, D.C. to help with the recovery efforts at the Pentagon. The dogs were assigned the task of finding people buried beneath tons of rubble.

Lette Birn and her eight-year-old black Labrador Retriever, Guinness, were two of the Task Force members sent to the Pentagon. Guinness is trained to search in urban and wilderness situations, and for cadavers. The two have been training for years and this was a monumental assignment for them. Though no one was found alive, Guinness and the rest of the team were so effective at their jobs that they finished the assignment early and returned home on September 23.

For the search, Birn had to wear a special suit and respirator as protection against possible contaminants. As a result, she could not give clear, audible instructions to Guinness through the respirator. Guinness learned quickly that when he heard Birn's distorted voice, he needed to look at her and she successfully directed him with hand signals.

When asked what the high point of this assignment was, Birn answered that it was working as a team. All of the rescue personnel, the firefighters and others, became very close. The rescuers, who had been removing rubble by hand, piece by piece, learned to appreciate the dogs. The dogs could go directly to a spot and indicate they had found a victim. The rescuers could then dig in a specific spot. Birn says she would have loved to stay longer, but their assignment ended once the building was secured to the point that the FBI could take over.

Birn and Guinness are members of the Mountain Canine Corps (MC2), the Search and Rescue organization out of Los Alamos, one of the oldest groups of its kind in the United States. Michael Warren, the leader of MC2, says that this group certifies three specialties of Search and Rescue dogs: tracking, air scent and cadaver. His group trains twice a week with their dogs and they try to train under different conditions.

Guardian/Trainer Lette Birn, State Senator Mary Jane Garcia, Guinness, Animal Advocate/Actress Ali MacGraw, Sage, and Guardian/Trainer Diane Whetsel compare notes at the 2001 APNM Milagro Awards.

Dogs used in search and rescue work are trained for specific tasks. Air scenting dogs are used to search for missing persons who might have wandered off a short distance and become lost, or people who may be trapped. Depending upon the conditions, these dogs can pick up a scent in the air over a quarter-mile away. They can find people who are buried beneath rubble or even victims under water. Tracking dogs can follow the tracks of someone by following where that person went. These dogs are used for people who may have gotten lost and for criminal investigations. Mantrackers are dogs who can be given something to sniff that came from the person for whom they are searching. They can differentiate between "their" person and others in a populated area. Cadaver dogs are trained to search for bodies, either above or below ground.

Dogs are perfect for search and rescue since they are very smart, bond closely with their human, and can be trained to communicate their find. Their sense of smell can be 100,000 times better than a human's, according to experts. Dogs capture the scent from a human from the microscopic tissue particles that each of us continually sheds. These particles become airborne and disburse the scent through the air like a cloud of smoke.

Birn explains that a good dog is one with the right temperament, not a specific breed, though the pug-faced dogs do not have the best senses of smell. A good dog needs to be one that will search by smell, not sight, and not give up until the object of the search is found. Dogs who weigh between 40 to 70 pounds are about the right size, states Birn. Guinness is large, weighing in at about 90 pounds.

During training, the dogs are taught small skills. Each skill is rewarded until it becomes a multi-step task. Whatever the individual dog likes as a reward, he or she gets once on the job. Guinness's reward is to play tug with a tennis ball on rope.

The dogs need to train under different conditions. Birn has taken Guinness to California to climb over rubble, and has flown him to Austria to train, just to see how they do things over there. She takes him for daily walks and has him walk over different textures that she might find, such as cattle guards or rocks.

Birn says all of the dogs who worked with the Task Force at the Pentagon were amazing. Two were young. All had to spend time around noisy airplanes, in unfamiliar surroundings, in a bombed out building, and had go through decontamination, yet none of them ever flinched or became stressed. Her pride in these 4-legged professionals was very apparent in her voice. The dogs' attitude seemed to be, That's our job. That's what we do.

Freddi Hetler is a writer who lives in Eldorado, south of Santa Fe with her husband, six dogs, and four cats. In her spare time she volunteers for the Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society and the El Dorado Fire and Rescue Service.

A door is what a dog is perpetually on the wrong side of.
-Ogden Nash

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