Shelter Dogs Can Make Great SAR Dogs

High-energy shelter dogs get a second chance in search and rescue.
By Jen Blood, February 2018
Rocket going through training paces.

Rocket going through training paces.

Photo: NATIONAL DISASTER SEARCH DOG FOUNDATION

Photo: NATIONAL DISASTER SEARCH DOG FOUNDATION

In August of 2012, an energetic Shepherd-ish dog named Rocket was picked up on Watt Avenue, one of the toughest areas of Sacramento, Calif., and subsequently taken to the Sacramento SPCA. As with so many high-energy dogs, he didn’t do well in the shelter, too stressed by confinement and overstimulation to put his best paw forward. Before long, deemed unadoptable, he was placed on the to-be-euthanized list.

In the meantime, a shelter worker contacted Andrea Bergquist, a canine recruitment volunteer for the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) in Santa Paula, Calif. SDF is a nonprofit organization founded in 1996 with the mission of recruiting and training dogs from rescues and partnering them with firefighters and other first responders. At the news of a possible new recruit, Bergquist quickly agreed to come out to test Rocket’s potential.

Unfortunately, stressed by his environment, Rocket failed SBF’s initial recruitment test. With two weeks to go before his to-be-euthanized date, the dog was returned to death row to await his fate.

Bergquist, however, couldn’t get Rocket out of her head.

“She just couldn’t stop thinking about him,” says Engineer Mike Stornetta of California’s Windsor Fire Protection District, a man who would eventually come to know Rocket well. “Finally, after two weeks obsessing over him, she said, ‘I’m gonna break some rules and it may get me in trouble with my husband, but I’m going to save that dog.’”

The day Rocket was to be euthanized, Bergquist called the Sacramento SPCA and told them to hold him. Whether or not he was right for SDF, she would take him home.

According to Sonja Heritage, head trainer with SDF, it is notoriously difficult to gauge a dog’s true personality under the stress of a shelter situation. For this reason, SDF has canine recruiters around the U.S. with the training and facilities necessary to test a promising dog away from the chaos of a busy shelter. These dogs are pulled from the shelter and taken home with the recruiter, where they’re able to relax, stretch their legs a bit and start to show their true personalities.

What is the spark recruiters are looking for—what makes them decide to take that first step and go through with the test? With more than three million dogs turned in to shelters annually in the United States, it’s hardly feasible to test each and every one. So, what’s the key?

“Super high ball drive,” says Erich Steffensen of New York’s Animal Farm Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to training rescued Pit Bulls and Pit Bull-types as assistance and police dogs. “The dogs are trained with a tennis ball or toy as a reward; they don’t work for treats when they’re out doing the detection work, so they need to have a high toy drive.”

Michelle Merrifield of the Maine State Warden Service’s K-9 unit agrees. “SAR [search and rescue] dogs have more play drive than most normal dog owners know what to do with. They’ll just keep going. Great when you’re in the field looking for a missing child. Not so great if you just want a dog to hang out with all day.”

Of course, energy alone does not a successful search dog make. Dogs who work in search and rescue, detection, or law enforcement must also get along with people and other dogs, be brave and fit enough to navigate uneven surfaces like rubble and debris, and show problem-solving skills and an ability to both take orders and think independently. But it all starts with that play drive.

Which is precisely the reason dogs from rescues and shelters can be such a perfect fit for service work. When dogs are surrendered for behavioral reasons, one of the most frequently cited issues is excessive energy or unwanted behaviors that result from it, like nonstop barking or chewing. In extreme cases, a dog with that kind of over-the-top energy can be very hard—if not impossible—for shelters to rehome. Happily, these are precisely the dogs who are most often successful in programs like those offered at Animal Farm Foundation and the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation.

“I see it all the time,” says SDF’s Sonja Heritage. “We get these dogs who have no use for people— they’ve had so many bad experiences, they’re not even interested. They’ve lived their whole life being told, ‘No,’ and ‘Bad dog.’”

Over the course of SDF’s intensive nine-month training program, however, Heritage says there is a transformation. “By month four, you see them turn around. They start to believe they’re good dogs.” And by month nine, Heritage says, the transformation is complete. “They carry themselves differently, they have total self-respect and this deep love for people.”

Which, as you may have guessed, is precisely what happened with Rocket.

SDF volunteer recruiter Andrea Bergquist initially adopted Rocket for her own family, thinking his energy and intelligence might make him a good agility dog. Once he was settled, however, Rocket’s drive to play started to show itself. Bergquist’s husband, a trainer with SDF, began taking the dog to trainings with his own search dog. Rocket excelled.

In late 2013, the Bergquists took Rocket through the SDF recruitment test one more time. This time, there was no question: Rocket was a search dog, through and through.

The family donated Rocket to SDF, where he sailed through the training program. Nine months later, in the summer of 2014, Rocket began training with Mike Stornetta. Today, the high-energy stray who nearly met his end in a Sacramento shelter is a sworn-in member of the Windsor Fire Protection District, FEMA-certified for urban search-and-rescue live finds. In Rocket’s new life, he is valued for precisely the things that seemed to seal his fate five years ago: his energy and enthusiasm.

“I never knew you could communicate with an animal at the level that we communicate,” says Stornetta of his partner. “I’m just glad Andrea saw what she did in him and made that call.”

Jen Blood is the bestselling author of the “Flint K-9 Search and Rescue” mysteries and a new, rescue-friendly children’s book.

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