Capitol Police to Add Search-and-Rescue Dogs

Posted February 14, 2003 at 5:28pm

The Capitol Police K-9 unit is poised to add four new canines specially trained to lead search-and-rescue efforts in the event of a disaster on or around the Congressional campus.

The dogs, who along with their handlers will be certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will be trained to locate human scent beneath the rubble of a building or other structure.

The new search-and-rescue animals will be the largest such group working with a single law enforcement agency on the East Coast. The New York Police Department has two similarly trained dogs.

Chief Terrance Gainer said of the department’s decision, “Frankly, in trying to think through the different preparedness and response scenarios, that heaven forbid, if we had to go into a building to look for someone, I knew our officers were in the best position to know and understand the building with all its labryniths, and thought they’d be in a best position to try and rescue someone or find someone.”

Although the department currently has 33 dogs skilled in detecting explosives, and has previously used “street” dogs (sometimes used to sniff out drugs or other materials), it has never possessed animals trained to locate humans.

“You have to keep re-emphasizing that there’s no specific threat,” Gainer said. “But the same way that we have the dogs looking for bombs doesn’t mean we’re going to find one, we just have to be prepared. And I would not want to be caught unprepared for a catastrophe. I think it’s our obligation to be ready for anything.”

The new canines are being trained by the Ojai, Calif.-based National Disaster Search Dog Foundation.

Although the organization typically donates the highly trained animals to fire and police departments, concern about Congressional gift rules stopped the Capitol Police from accepting the animals, said Wilma Melville, NDSDF’s founder and executive director.

“Because of the gift rule some payment had to be exchanged, but the foundation does not sell dogs. They provide a program of training the handler to work with the already trained dog,” Melville explained. The department ended up paying $16,000 to the nonprofit foundation for its training program.

Although the foundation manages its waiting list for police or fire departments on a first-come, first-serve basis, Melville said the Capitol Police received special consideration.

“We thought the need for the U.S. Capitol Police Department was so great that we did ask several others to ‘please step aside, let these dogs go through to them and we’ll pick you up next time.’ And they were good enough to do that,” she said.

The group, the only one of its kind in the nation, typically trains dogs between eight weeks and 18 months old. The animals spend six months to a year with a host family before working for six months at the Sundowners Training Kennels in Gilroy, Calif. The dogs learn to climb ladders, follow verbal and nonverbal direction, and signal when they discover the scent of a live person.

After graduating from the kennel program, the canines continue to train for up to a year to receive FEMA certification.

Four Capitol Police canine trainers will become handlers for the new animals, and will travel to California for two weeks to begin working with the dogs, who graduate from the kennel program March 1.

The trainers will spend five or six days working with pre-trained dogs under the guidance of NDSDF staff to learn skills such as whistle commands or hand signals.

“By working with the highly trained dog, the handler can pay attention to his own skill, rather than the dog,” Melville said.

Once handlers learn the various commands, Melville said, they will be teamed with their own dogs, who include: Kelly, a female yellow Labrador retriever, Giuli, a female chocolate Labrador retriever, Baron, a male German shepherd, and Tag, a male border collie.

The Capitol Police’s K-9 unit now includes German shepherds, black, yellow and chocolate Labrador retrievers, a Chesapeake Bay retriever and a springer spaniel.

Once the handlers and dogs return to the District, they will continue training and foundation officials will make periodic visits to check on their progress.

“The idea is to keep the handler on track and not let him wander too far from what’s needed, make sure of consistency,” Melville said.

To acquire FEMA certification, which consists of both a basic and advanced test, the animals must must meet requirements for obedience and direction control, as well as passing an obstacle course.

In the basic test, each dog must locate two individuals buried in a pile of rubble within 15 minutes. In the the advanced test, the dog is required to find six individuals buried in three piles of rubble, however, the piles also hide clothing, food scraps, and cages containing animals such as rats, cats or chickens.

“We want [the dog] only to alert on live human scent, so he has to ignore the food, the clothing, the little animals,” Melville said.

But Melville added, the foundation trains the canines and their handlers with skills not required by FEMA, such as rappelling, entering or exiting a helicopter, conducting searches at night or in a darkened building, or inside a collapsed structure.

“The FEMA advanced certification is a weigh point, but it’s not the end in terms of where they need to go.”

She compared the additional skills, such as rappelling, when the dog is put into a harness, to paratrooper training in the military.

“Not that it gets used all the time — it certainly does not — but should you need to do it, you need to know your dog will work after that.”

Unlike the Capitol Police’s current canines, which travel with officers on patrols, when they are not being used to screen packages, rooms or vehicles, the new search-and-rescue dogs will be used only in emergency situations.

“We need the explosive detection dogs on a daily basis but these dogs will be on call,” said Capitol Police spokeswoman Kim Bolinger. In addition to being used for possible emergencies in the capital area, the dogs could potentially be deployed if a terrorist attack or other event were to occur in the region.

Like the department’s current dogs, the new foursome will live and work with their handlers 24 hours a day.

“The dogs and the handlers spend all day together, so they sleep at the handlers’ home and become integrated with the handlers’ family,” Bolinger said.