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DOG TEAMS BACK FROM GULF CANINES HELPED HUNT FOR VICTIMS OF HURRICANE KATRINA.

Byline: Eric Leach Staff Writer

OJAI - Four search dogs and their handlers have returned from rescue efforts on the Gulf Coast, but others from the nonprofit, Ojai-based National Disaster Search Dog foundation will remain looking for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

There are 63 teams in the nation connected to the search dog foundation, and 26 handlers with their dogs from the foundation have assisted in the gulf rescue efforts, officials said.

One of those who returned Tuesday was Los Angeles City Fire Department paramedic Deresa Teller of Simi Valley, whose retired dog Bella is in the California Veterinary Medical Association's Hall of Fame.

Teller's border collie Bella worked to find victims of the Oklahoma City bombing and the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks. Teller came back from the gulf Tuesday with her new dog, Ranger, Bella's grandson.

She was in Mississippi along with other members of FEMA Task Force 1, which included Ron Weckbacher of Thousand Oaks with his border collie Dawson, Debra Tosh, executive director of the Search Dog Foundation with her black Labrador Abby, and Howard Orr, a Santa Barbara County firefighter with his chocolate Labrador Duke.

``The closer we got to the gulf, the greater the damage, until there there was nothing left of the houses but the slabs,'' Teller said. ``I was amazed by the devastation. I'd rather face an earthquake any day than what I saw there.''

She and the others turned their dogs loose to search over the rubble. They found no one alive, which helped assure everyone that there were no survivors hidden in the debris.

Tosch called it ``Mother Nature at the worst'' and Weckbacher said they were were searching through devastation.

``There were blocks and blocks and blocks just leveled,'' he said. ``People's lives have been totally wiped out. You see them coming back, trying to pick through their stuff, pick through what was their life.''

Janet Reineck, director of development of the Search Dog Foundation, said she has been talking to the various searchers throughout their deployment, some still in the gulf area facing dramatically different situations depending on where they are working.

``The dogs help speed the efforts by letting rescue squads know when there were no survivors to be found. ... They also provide this tremendous comfort to the survivors and the rescue workers.''

Marc Valentine, a captain with the Montebello Fire Department, said he arrived there with his Labrador-golden retriever mix Val on Sept. 7 as part of FEMA's California Task Force 5 and has been working in a number of New Orleans neighborhoods as the water drains.

He said some of the victims initially didn't want to leave their homes, but now many are giving up and asking to be relocated.

``The longer we get away from the original flooding, they are running out of food and water,'' he said.

``We find people on a daily basis dead,'' said Valentine, who might be returning to California in a few days. ``We find two or three people a day in their homes who have been there since the storm. Some people are living in houses in danger of collapse.''

The stranded victims often love seeing the dogs, he said.

``The dogs are able to provide a little bit of normalcy in a very abnormal situation. They not only help to save people but provide a little stability for the rescuers. This is very surreal for all of us. People just want to come over to pet them and hold them. They are as much a rehab tool as a rescue tool.''

Reineck said that in training, the handlers hide from the dogs by burying each other under rubble and reward the dogs for finding them by playing with them.

Most of the search dogs are recruited from shelters or rescue organizations throughout the United States where some staff members learn how to recognize their potential. Some come from Guide Dogs of America, but because of their high energy and extreme drive, they are better suited to be disaster search dogs than to be companion dogs for the blind.

Once the dogs are rescued and pass all the evaluations, they go into six months of professional training like a canine boot camp at a center in Gilroy, which trains about 12 dogs at a time.

In the meantime, the Search Dog Foundation is working with fire departments interested in having canine search teams. Firefighters are ideal for the program because they provide valuable rescue services at disaster scenes even when the dogs are not being used, Reineck said.

``They train every week all of their working lives. They have to be constantly at highest deployment readiness with all their gear packed for their dogs and themselves.''

Ventura County sheriff's Deputy Rick Harwood, who has worked with the Ventura County dog handlers, said they share a remarkable devotion to their mission of helping others.

``I think it is amazing the time and effort they spend training the dogs to get them to the level they are. They spend thousands of hours. They don't get paid, and they invest a lot of their own personal money. Their whole motivation is to go out and help somebody.''

Eric Leach, (805) 583-7602

eric.leach(at)dailynews.com

FOR INFORMATION

Call (888) 459-4376 or visit www.searchdogfoundation.org.

CAPTION(S):

3 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- color) Search dog Dawson gets lots of attention from Los Angeles Firefighter Patrick Leising of Newhall, his children Garrett, 5, center, and Gavin, 3, and Dawson's owner Ron Weckbacher, right, who accompanied the firefighters in their searches in the Gulf Coast.

(2) Debra Tosch, executive director of the National Search Dog Foundation, third from left in front row, stands with her dog Abby as Los Angeles Fire Chief William Bamattre welcomes home Urban Search and Rescue Team members from California Task Force One.

(3) Deresa Teller of the National Search Dog Foundation, and her dog Ranger are welcomed home by Los Angeles Fire Chief William Bamattre.

Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer

Box:

FOR INFORMATION (see text)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 18, 2005
Words:1009
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