A special bond started forming this week when a group of Miami firefighters met their new four-legged partners from International Falls.
Four 8-week-old yellow Labrador retrievers from Brown’s Gun Dog Kennels owned by Shannon Brown, left Borderland Wednesday bound for Florida to start their careers as search and rescue dogs with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, which is part of Flordia’s Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue.
“The work starts right now,” said firefighter Veronica Cordoba, adding the dogs will live with their new partners. “It’s more hands-on that way.”
While watching the firefighters interact with their new puppies, Capt. Kristian Labrada, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue canine coordinator/specialist, said it’s important they be able to pick out their own dogs and be part of their lives from the beginning.
“It’s a bond, it’s a relationship,” she said. “It’s not just the handler and it’s not just the dog... they’re a team. They’re going to have to work in dangerous situations together, climate that is difficult, all different kinds of variables. It’s an important relationship.”
Labrada has been with the department’s canine unit for 19 years and knows the time, energy and dedication that goes into training a search and rescue dog – she’s on her fourth.
“It’s a big commitment,” she said. “These four (firefighters) showed interest, showed desire...it’s good to have a group of people at the same level so they can train together.”
The puppies will not be eligible to test for their Federal Emergency Management Agency search and rescue dog certification until they are at least 18 months old, although most test after they turn 2 to ensure they are well-trained and physically and emotionally mature enough to do the job. Between now and then, Cordoba said there is a lot of work to do for both the handler and the dog.
“We’ve been looking forward to this for a while now,” she said. “We’ve been through so much training already to have our own dogs, so it’s super exciting, but at the same time there’s a long road ahead of us.”
According to FEMA’s website, certification tests for the handler includes search strategies and tactics, mapping, search and victim markings, briefing and debriefing skills, in addition to canine handling skills.
For the disaster search canine, certification includes proper command control, agility skills, a focused bark alert to indicate a live find, and a willingness to persist to search for live victims in spite of possible extreme temperatures and animal, food and noise distractions. The canine must also be confident enough to search independently and must be able to negotiate slippery surfaces, balance wobbly objects underneath his feet and go through dark tunnels.
The team tests on two large rubble piles for an unknown number of victims, implementing all of their knowledge, skills and abilities acquired from years of training. Teams that pass are some of the most highly trained canine resources in the country and can be deployed to disasters around the world.
In January 2010, when responding to the massive earthquake in Haiti, canines on Labrada’s team alone rescued 11 people — one of the most notable moments of her career.
“It was pretty amazing,” she said.
Finding the pups
Labrador retrievers make impressive search and rescue dogs because of their intelligence and train-ability, the group said, adding there are also Dutch shepherds and golden retrievers on Labrada’s team. When looking to add the four new firefighters to the now 13-team unit, the group came across an online advertisement for Brown’s puppies and were attracted to the litter because of how many were available.
“Because we wanted four, we want a lot to choose from,” Labrada said.
So, the group traveled across the country to meet their new teammates and immediately start simple training techniques.
Labrada examined eight puppies at the kennel and performed small tests such as playing with the dogs and opening an umbrella – which can be intimidating to the pups – to see how they react and recover.
“It’s not about scaring them, it’s just showing them something a little different and see how they recover,” she said.
There were a few puppies who were more timid than their siblings, but Labrada said they’ll likely come out of their shell.
“You need to give them a couple chances, because it is new,” she said of some of the brief situations she introduced to the puppies Wednesday. “But the ones that can recover and come out of that faster are the ones that are usually better off... These dogs will someday get off a plane in a new area where there’s a huge disaster and it’s all going to be new, so you want a dog that gets off the plane and is ready to work. We test that and we train that throughout their whole career... Dogs aren’t perfect, they have bad days and you just have to work with it.”
Brown was humbled by the confidence in his dogs.
“I appreciate their confidence in the quality of our dogs to make a specific trip across the country,” the breeder of 26 years said.
For now, Wednesday was all fun and games for the pups who wrestled with their siblings, explored freedom outside of their kennel and snuggled into their new owners’ arms. The youngsters had no idea what was in store for their challenging, but important futures.
“There’s no guarantee, of course, but if one of these dogs saves one life, the investment is worth it,” Labrada said.