Dogs and their handlers: how four-legged rescuers work

June 30
Safety and security

 Officially, Dog Handler’s Day is called Day of Dog Training Units of the Russian Ministry of the Interior. However, not only policemen but also customs officers, border guards and rescuers who work with dogs consider this day to be their professional holiday. On 21 June 1909, the first Russian kennel for search dogs was established, following which the first school for dog handlers was opened.

On the eve of the holiday, visited the training grounds of the Moscow Fire and Rescue Centre in Aparinki. Rescuer and dog handler Yulia Tikhonova showed how training is going on and also talked about her work. Danya – a white Swiss shepherd, served as her assistant.

Yulia became a rescuer in 2003 and began working as a dog handler for rescue squad No. 6 of the Moscow Fire and Rescue Centre in 2017.

“There are eight dog training teams in the squad — each one consists of a handler and a dog. Each handler has his or her own dog. We take them home, they join us on duty,” she says.

Dog training teams in the Fire and Rescue Centre appeared in 2010. The division works with search dogs. Dog handlers along with their pets look for people who get lost in the forest or who get stuck under rubble.

On duty, each dog has its own large enclosure.

Separating games from work

At the Aparinki training ground, there are many sites simulating various emergencies. For example, here there is a site where search dogs train to search for people stuck under rubble.

When Yulia gives the signal, Danya begins to search. He sniffs every corner and sometimes he stops and listens. A few minutes pass and the person is found. After his work is done, the dog receives some treats as his reward.

“For them, this is a game, but at the same time they understand that they are working. And they are really keen to do it,” explains Yulia.

She adds that dogs understand very well when they can fool around and when serious work begins. And they behave differently in different situations.

Devices and scent for help

The search for people lost in the forest is the main part of the work of rescue dogs. Calls are received from all over Moscow, most often from the Troitsky and Novomoskovsky administrative areas, where forests cover a large part of the territory.

Danya is only three years old, but he has already saved a man during his service. The man got lost in the trees felled by windstorms and could not get out. Luckily he did manage to call rescuers.

In most cases, a person understands that he or she is lost and contacts rescuers. Now almost all phones have a built-in navigator, but it cannot always help to get people out of forests. But when approximate coordinates are known, the search radius can be narrowed.

Dog handlers also use devices. For example, a navigator is hung on Danya, which helps Yulia see where the dog is if he runs far away. This is particularly helpful when she is working in large areas, in thickets or in the dark.

Dog handlers of the emergency rescue squad No. 6 work in collaboration with volunteers from the Liza Alert search and rescue squad. Last year, more than 60 people were found thanks to their joint efforts.

A lot of people were saved by border-Collie, Yashma. She is 11 years old – quite an advanced age for the dog, but she is still in service. This is the only dog in the squad that worked in three different teams and has passed certification with three dog handlers.

How dogs become search and rescuers

Typically, dogs enter service at the age of 1,5 to 2 years. At this time, they can acquire more skills, although adult animals can also be trained.

Danya came to the centre when he was a puppy. When Yulia went to choose her ward, Danya immediately drew her attention. Now she recalls with a laugh that at first the dog did not like her.

“Danya at first did not want to be my dog. When we came for him, there were several puppies. I chose Danya. But he ran away, as if he tried to say “No, no I don’t want to go with you.”

But being selected by a dog handler is half the battle. The main thing is to pass special testing. Not every dog is suitable for search work. A dog should not be aggressive or afraid of strangers. In addition, a dog should be interested in conducting searches.

Testing determines the abilities of a dog, and recommendations are made based on its results. If a dog is not good in the search for people, it can detect explosives or save people in the water.

Danya is a thoroughbred dog, but an ordinary mongrel can also become a rescuer. The main thing is that it should not be too small or too large.

To keep four-legged rescuers in shape, they need to be constantly trained. For these purposes, there are various simulators and equipment at the training ground in Aparinki. In addition, dog handlers and dogs have weekly field training in forests, abandoned buildings or in rubble.

Dogs undergo certification once a year. It includes exams for obedience, dexterity and the ability to search for victims both in a natural environment and in man-made rubble.

What can dog handlers do?

There is a small pond at the training ground. It is hot today, so Danya eagerly looks at both Yulia and the pond. He wants to swim, but he needs his handler’s permission. When Yulia gives the go-ahead, the dog jumps into the water directly from the platform and happily swims towards the shore.

Yulia Tikhonova says she wanted to become a firefighter since childhood, but did not even think about being a dog handler.

“When I started working as a rescuer and dog handler, I understood that this job is no easier than just a rescuer. You spend a lot of time in training. In addition, you are responsible not only for your skills, but also for those of your dog,” she notes.

Yulia adds both dog training and rescue skills are needed on duty. After all, if you do not know how to work, for example, in man-made rubble, you are unlikely to be able to help the victim, no matter how well your dog does its job.

A rescuer and dog handler has many skills. For example, he or she has knowledge on topography or can get orientated by looking at the stars (in event devices fail). In addition, a rescuer must understand how a lost person thinks.

“A dog handler must also understand how smells spread, how air ‘works.’ It is necessary to realise where you can go with your dog, where you must help it, and where it should not be allowed in any case,” Yulia Tikhonova emphasises.

Dog handlers in the Moscow Region are trained in the dog training service of the Centrospas unit and in the dog training centre of the Noginsk Rescue Centre of the Russian Emergencies Ministry.

Like people

In between training Danya, like all dogs, loves to fool around, run and play. He is not afraid of people at all and is ready to make friends with anybody.

The friendliness of search dogs allows them to participate in charity projects. For example, dog handlers with dogs from the Moscow Fire and Rescue Centre visit children who are receiving treated in hospitals and tell them about the work of rescuers and show them what search dogs are capable of. Especially often, dog handlers and their pets come to the Morozovskaya Children's Clinical Hospital. Dogs like to communicate with children.

“Last year, one boy made a wish to become a firefighter. He was invited on a tour to the fire and rescue squad to meet firefighters, and we came to talk about our work and show him what we can do,” recalls Yulia Tikhonova.

There are also relations between dogs, and they are similar to human ones. Danya can make friends with some dogs, while he does not like others. But this does not affect his ability to work.

“For example, let us take Danya and Yashma. If you let them out together just to run and play, then Yashma will bite and keep Danya away from her. But as soon as we go on a duty, I sometimes put them in one cage, where they calmly lie on each other,” says Yulia.

The training was interrupted by a call – a man got lost in the Bitsevsky forest, and Danya and Yulia set off to beging the search for him.


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