Man’s best friend in times of need. In fact, anyone’s best friend if they are lost. What you need is a dog and, preferably, one that has arrived in a helicopter with a medical professional in tow. Around the world, civil and military organisations are making use of our canine buddies to aid in SAR missions.
For many years, an iconic image of rescue was the St Bernard dog loping up a Swiss mountainside with a small barrel of brandy for the lost mountaineer he had found. A new generation of rescue dogs, though, is being taken to new heights onboard helicopters, allowing them to perform new tasks, including searching for survivors after a natural disaster, and carrying out combat SAR missions in warzones.
In Scotland, Crew Commander Gary Carroll and his Springer Spaniel Diesel work for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and ISAR – the UK’s International SAR team, which is deployed around the world when needed following a humanitarian disaster such as an earthquake. Carroll raised Diesel from a pup – actually, he bred him, with Diesel’s mum being Carroll’s dog too. Raising Diesel meant that there was an opportunity very early on to identify certain traits that meant he would be a great SAR dog in the future. “It’s all about the toy drive,” explained Carroll to AirMed&Rescue. “If the dog is interested in playing with and finding toys, then it’s a reasonably safe assumption that they are going to be capable of searching for live scent when trained.”
The training process is a long one. “We spent two years in urban SAR training, and once Diesel was confident in that particular discipline, we made a start on height appliance training, slowing adding more height and more noise to platforms to accustom him to the situation. He needed to get used to the working at height harness and having the extra weight of the GoPro attached to him too.”
It’s all about repetition, with gentle increments allowing the dog to become more practiced and comfortable in the new environments
It’s all about repetition, with gentle increments allowing the dog to become more practiced and comfortable in the new environments.
Having mastered the working at height aspect, the rope rescue training then starts. Diesel is held in a specially made harness, dangled from a rope and gently moved around – so he can get used to the sensation of hanging – before Carroll and Diesel abseil together down to the ground. Repetition of this process means that when the time comes to face a real-life helicopter, Diesel has been prepared for at least part of the process.
The Scottish Fire & Rescue Service doesn’t have a helicopter on which SAR dogs can be trained, so instead, Carroll explained, partner agencies are asked for their help. “Fortunately,” Carroll told AirMed&Rescue, “my contacts in the military can be counted upon to help out in this situation, with Sea King and Chinook helicopters most typically available.” The training process begins, perhaps predictably, with safety briefings from the crew. With the helicopter stationary and with engines off, the dogs are trained to jump in and out until they are used to it. The process is then repeated with the engines on and rotors going. “Diesel has to be used to the noise, heat, vibration, downdraft and dust,” said Carroll. Hence the need for the doggles – dog googles – to protect his eyes.
Although Diesel has yet to be deployed from a helicopter, he travelled to Nepal to perform urban SAR after the earthquake that occurred there in 2015, and he’s ready to go wherever he is needed as part of his responsibilities with UK International SAR.
From Scotland to Canada, where AirMed&Rescue spoke to Ian Bunbury, who volunteers with his border collie Henry with the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA). “Dogs,” explained Bunbury, “are ideal for avalanche SAR because we are looking for something that we can’t see. Dogs’ noses, with their incredible powers of scent detection and discrimination, combined with the training, equipment and experience of the handler, make for an effective part of an avalanche SAR response team.”
Interestingly, there are different opinions about which breed of dog is best for SAR duties. Bunbury told AirMed&Rescue: “Beginning in 1993, all three of my dogs have been purebred border collies. Despite the fact that German shepherd is my favourite breed (I had one as a child), it was while waiting for a position in the Whistler Professional Ski Patrols’ Avalanche Dog programme that I realised the border collie might be a better tool for the task at hand, as well as a more appropriate life partner. Athletic build, renowned work ethic, proven physical reliability, legendary intelligence, ability to work independently, loyalty to one handler/trainer, relatively light weight, compact size … these were some of the traits that made me see this breed as my ideal partner.”
Henry’s preparation for flying on a helicopter differed from Diesel’s in Scotland slightly – while the theme of getting the dog used to noisy machines remained the same, the tools of the job varied. Bunbury explained: “Riding on snowmobiles, ATV’s, motorcycles, chairlifts, gondolas, and electric hoists conditions him to the fact that what he is standing on or being supported by may not always be stable, or go in the direction that you want, or expect.” Combining the use of markers and positive, reward-based training [i.e. food] the dog is gradually introduced to the idea that these unusual experiences turn into rewardable moments, which in turn strengthens the connection between dog and handler. He went on: “By observing the dog very closely, we can slowly introduce him to new experiences at a pace that is acceptable to him. This builds the dog’s confidence in not only accepting new things, but also in the fact that the handler is not going to expose or force the dog into a situation he is not comfortable with.”
Remarkably, Henry took ‘very little time’ to get used to working in and around the helicopter, despite the noise and vibrations, and was even spotted fast asleep on the floor of the helicopter on one of his early extended flights! And while human rescue victims in a sling under a helicopter for the first time might be anxious, stiff and frightened, this isn’t the case with dogs, apparently. Bunbury said: “As for the HETS (Helicopter External Transport System, longlining) flights, almost all dogs, no matter how rambunctious, generally ‘give up’ and relax the moment their feet come off the ground/snow, as they now have no base from which to resist from.”
Volunteer SAR personnel have to learn about helicopter operations at the same time as their dogs, although Bunbury has regular re-currency training as part of his ski patrol for medical evacuations course, and he is also part of the team that deploys explosives as part of the avalanche mitigation plan at Whistler Blackcomb. There is annual training with CARDA’s winter validation course, at least one half-day of which is dedicated to dogs and helicopters.
Callie is a two-year-old Dutch Shepherd, and is the only SAR dog in the US Department of Defense, as 2019 was the first year of the 123 Special Tactics Squadron (STS) SAR K9 Programme’s existence. Callie works with Tech. Sgt Rudy Parsons, a pararescueman with the STS of the Kentucky Air National Guard. Callie was purchased as a 14-month-old from Penn Vet Working Dog Center in Philadelphia, where they did her socialisation, obedience, and began her training into Working Dog disciplines and eventually, specifically into the SAR world.
Parsons explained to AirMed&Rescue that thanks to the fact that the K9 programme is so new, they have been able to enjoy ‘some pretty incredible training opportunities’ over the past 12 months. He elaborated: “Her training schedule is unique because she accompanies me to all the training I am already attending as a pararescueman and we add specific training objectives and equipment to incorporate the K9 capability. Frequently, she and I are knocking out consistent reps by doing weekly SAR training with local agencies and volunteers around at home.”
“The neat thing about Callie’s training schedule is that we have integrated her capabilities so well into Air Force Special Warfare mission sets that when we train, she trains. Most of her training ends up being organic because we are constantly flying with neighbouring helicopter squadrons, training for natural disaster response, or spinning up for upcoming wartime deployments.” Due to the nature of her training, Parsons said it would be impossible to put a total price on the cost of the training exercises undertaken to make her into the specialised dog she has become.
Callie and Tech. Sgt Parsons only recently earned their FEMA Urban SAR certification, so have yet to actually be deployed. As such, their current focus is on training and preparation, so that when the time comes, they are ready and waiting. Such preparation includes training Callie in different weather and terrain, such as snowmobiling through Montana, sky diving into inaccessible locations to search through rubble, and even traversing rugged terrain to find a pilot that had broken his legs during the ejection process and ended up isolated behind enemy lines. Parsons said: “It’s been incredible to watch her grow and excel at her job while it has greatly amplified our capabilities in personnel recovery.”
He highlighted that what makes Callie different to other SAR dogs is as a result of her training in aircraft: “Many local, state, and federal agencies have excellent SAR dogs trained and ready for the worst. What Callie provides is being able to reach locations that are nearly impossible to reach, while bringing that same capability with a highly trained team. Saving minutes to even days of time which is the difference between life and death.”