Saturday was a big day for West Coast search and rescue dogs.
All search dogs certified to respond to major disasters — such as Hurricane Katrina, the collapse of the World Trade Center and last year’s landslide at Oso — are required to pass rigorous testing by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
This year it was Washington’s turn to host the regional FEMA certification tests, and dogs from Washington, California and Idaho — accompanied by their nervous handlers — converged for the day on a simulated disaster area in a Frederickson gravel pit.
Five “victims” were buried in concrete rubble and construction debris, and, one by one, the dogs were turned loose to locate them, doing their best to ignore enticing distractions that included dirty clothing and leftover food.
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Six FEMA evaluators traveled from Ohio, New Mexico, California and Maryland for the occasion.
Pierce County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Cynthia Butler-Fajardo, who heads up Washington’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Force, said the test site, created by Randles Sand and Gravel, was remarkably realistic. “That’s pretty much what we work with,” she said. “It’s very much like the World Trade Center.”
Rookie dogs aren’t the only ones who have to pass the tests. Experienced animals — even those who have proved themselves over and over in real disasters — are required to renew their credentials every three years.
The dogs tested Saturday ranged in experience from a raw recruit named Guinness, a golden retriever who lives in Lakewood with owner Kent Olson to a highly decorated dog hero named Hunter, who flew up from Los Angeles County for the tests.
Hunter, a 12-year-old red-and-white border collie, distinguished himself after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti by sniffing out four survivors, one of whom was buried in rubble 16 feet deep. He’s been to so many disasters that Billy Monahan, the Los Angeles County firefighter who’s his handler and faithful companion, said he’s accumulated 50,000 frequent flier miles.
Saturday’s tests clearly showed the searching advantages dogs have over humans. They bounded almost effortlessly over the rubble and debris while their handlers struggled with every step.
“It would take us three days to go through this,” Butler-Fajardo said. “They do it in 20 minutes.”
Guinness, the rookie, was an enthusiastic but somewhat distracted searcher. He found four of the five victims, but relieved himself on the site, which is frowned on, and showed repeated interest in playing in a water puddle.
Hunter did a good job, too, but Olson worried afterward that it wasn’t good enough. “He did great for his age,” he said, “but you can definitely tell he’s getting older.”
While waiting for the test results, Olson said he dreaded having to put Hunter into retirement.
“These dogs have such high drive that it’s pretty hard to hold them back,” he said.
“It’s like when you have to take a driver’s license away from your parents,” he added. “Someday, I’m going to have to make that decision.”
As it turned out, Saturday wasn’t that day.
When the results were announced at 3:30 p.m., Hunter’s name was on the list, meaning he’s good to go for another three years.
Guinness didn’t make it this time.