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Search and rescue dogs from 17 states convened in Virginia Beach for a national training event hosted by Superfit Canine, an organization that designs disaster response workshops.
Teams spent all Tuesday preparing for real-world situations, including repelling from burning buildings and searching for victims trapped under rubble at the Virginia Beach Fire Training Center, one of the few locations in the United States that can offer this kind of training experience.
Eric Darling, a dog handler and retired firefighter, founded Superfit Canine with his wife, a veterinary technician, in 2014.
"We wanted to better the lives of working dogs by challenging them and opening up different training locations that handlers don’t normally have access to," he said. "We train by simulating real-life situations, like a burning building, a collapsed parking garage or a terrorist attack like 9/11. If it's feasible that it might happen, we prepare for it."
Since they started the organization, Darling and his wife Tracy have traveled across the world with their three dogs to train in a variety of conditions.
"We pick different places to train because every environment is unique. We just got back from Melbourne, Australia. In February we are going to Camp Atterbury in Indiana," he said. "Who wants to go to Indiana in February? Not many, but we do it because we want to train in those conditions."
The dogs participating in the training fulfill a number of roles in disaster response, from searching for live victims in rubble to detecting human remains.
"Basically we teach the dog hide-and-seek," said Karen Meadows, a canine search specialist and member of the Virginia Task Force 2. "We teach them that the person who they can’t see or hear has their favorite toy beneath the rubble."
Once the canines detect a live scent, they are trained to bark.
Darling, who has a certified live-find dog, another certified in remains detection and a third in training, explains the importance of in-depth preparation for disastrous situations.
"My dog has to know that I’m not going to drop him. We have to have that trust, which is why we do this training," he said. "It builds that bond."
The passion for this work is so strong that most handlers serve as unpaid volunteers from a wide variety of backgrounds, including firefighters and EMS workers.
"Everyone that is here is on their own time," Darling said. "The handlers are here because they want to help and make sure their canines are ready to go at a moment's notice."
Meadows shared how she got her start in disaster response.
"I got into search and rescue because I always enjoyed training dogs and training to help people," she said. "It is an incredible to watch a dog do exactly what we've been training so hard and long for. It really gives you a sense of purpose."
While most of rescue dogs are mid-sized, Darling says any type of dog has potential to serve in search and rescue as long as it is a hard worker.
"I want a dog that will bark his brains out and eat your couch. They want to have to work," he said. "Barking is what our survivors want to hear. I wake up every morning thinking about how I can challenge my dogs."
"You need a dog with excellent health lines, sociability, and temperament," Meadows said. "They need have have a boldness that shows they're ready to go."
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