Welcome to another Musa Masala presentation on Search and Rescue. This post will focus on a fascinating and exciting area of working with dogs to help find lost persons or body recovery. We are fortunate that Musa’s own Maighdlin Anderson is a member of the Allegheny Mountain Rescue Group and she introduced me to Jana Thompson, a dog handler with AMRG. 

I bet you are going to learn something here. Jana has taken the time to give us a pretty cool overview about these super special dogs, and their handlers! Including how heavy their training schedule is as they prepare to deploy at a moment’s notice. 

We will bring you more stories on search dogs and we will expand into different areas where dogs are making a difference in SAR and in medicine.

Special thanks to Jana and everyone at the Allegheny Mountain Rescue Group, including volunteers who are ready to do what needs to get done. Jam Jam!!

Search and Rescue Dogs, with Jana Thompson

Musa: Please tell us about yourself.

Jana: I’ve always been involved with animals: veterinary technician, pet store work, horse owner when young, beekeeper. I now live in the city, Pittsburgh, PA. If I didn’t have dogs and SAR, I wouldn’t own a car. I am now a well-trained and high ranking SAR team member in my own standing, beyond dog handling. 

Musa: How did you get involved in SAR?

Jana: As my dog started aging, slowing down at the age of 12, I was looking forward to the cadaver dog idea. I bought training books, started looking for SAR teams in the area. Then the dog lived to 15, so I was delayed.

Musa: How did you get into dog handling with SAR?

Jana: Working dog interest was how I got into SAR. Sometime in the 1990’s I heard a story on the radio about cadaver dogs, and I decided I would do that with my next dog. 

Musa: Please tell us about your group.

Jana: AMRG was formed in 1985. Beyond dogs, there’s rope work for high-angle rescue, cave work, swift water response, wildfire response, and we just started a drone team. Mantracking is becoming another sub category team within our group. I believe we have around 50 members, but only half of those are truly active members. Everyone in the team is a volunteer. 

Dewey, 2-year-old Doberman/pitbull. She’s not certified yet, but is almost ready for testing. In this photo, she is anticipating her toy reward as she comes out of a down. She was in a Down as her trained alert after she located the small glass jar on the corner of the window sill above her. She is named after the Dewey Decimal System-helps you find things. Photo credit B. Shanahan

Musa: Please tell us about your group.

Jana:  For a dog to become a successful and reliable working partner, the most important element is choosing the proper dog for the job. Many dogs are not appropriate. The right dog makes everything easier, more successful. 

Attending seminars with different trainers and then a home-based trainer are so important. Getting someone else’s eyes on the dog to find weak points, and try different scenarios help make a well-rounded working dog.

Generally a dog will be in serious training for a year or two before passing national testing standards to deploy. That dog will continue to train and develop skills beyond the initial certification to become a valuable tool in SAR.

Musa: Where do the dogs come from?

Jana: Often the best dogs come from breeders with established lines of working dogs. Having previously successful offspring and breeding working dogs often leads to the best dogs. However, with proper testing of personality and drives to perform work, and the same training given to a working-line bred dog, almost any dog can succeed. 

Both of my dogs were stray dogs in facilities waiting for a home. These dogs were tested/evaluated by visitors coming specifically to find possible working dogs. Often we are looking at the dogs deemed difficult to adopt as a house pet with high energy. Even within a litter of working-line dogs, testing is done to establish which pups will succeed. There will be many pups from working line parents without the drive to perform.

Buzz, a 6-year old pitbull. He is certified in land and water HRD (human remains detection). This photo shows one of the many hazards in SAR work, in the waiting room of emergency surgery. We were on deployment looking for a murder victim when Buzz found a porcupine. It nighttime and he was approximately 60 yards away from me and our flanker, in rocky wooded terrain, as the noises of stressed animals began. (I did not know what was happening, worst case was going to be a coyote attack on Buzz.) I reached the scene as a screaming Buzz was standing on the porcupine, furious and determined to kill the animal. I dragged him away. Our flanker, an Emergency Room Medical Doctor, was a great help in organizing our retreat and rescue over the radio. We had to walk almost a mile out to the road. Buzz had many quills in his feet and chest, not just the face quills seen in the picture. We were an hour drive from the local emergency veterinary clinic. I called on the way and we were treated and released before sunrise. Photo credit J.Thompson 

Musa: Are particular breeds ideal?

Jana: Large breeds are most common, any breeds considered by Law Enforcement are good choices. 

Musa: Are certain dogs trained for specific tasks?

Jana: All dogs are trained for specific tasks. Some dogs are cross trained to more than one discipline. There’s some dispute about how much this ought to be done. 

USAR dogs are typically rubble working dogs for earthquake, tornado and flood response. Some FEMA dogs may never work an actual case and just train their entire lives waiting for a FEMA call out. 

Musa: How many years on average will a dog work?

Jana: Most large dogs don’t live much past 12-13 years. And working dogs generally need to be in excellent physical condition. A working life of 5-7 years is normal. Some dogs will be able to work longer if they aren’t in large areas. Cadaver dogs can work with police on criminal matters with easy access, or on boats looking for drowning victims even if they can’t run through the woods or climb rubble piles.

Musa: How often do your teams train together?

Jana: Most SAR teams will have an official weekly canine training. I train with other teams and nosework people, so I have group training four times per week.

Musa: How do dogs work with the team?

Jana: Dogs and their handlers are deployed together. Some dogs are certified to work with more than one person. They must be nationally tested with each handler. Fellow human teammates can’t deploy with another teammate’s dog. 

The human is responsible for getting the dog throughout the space the team has been asked to search. The dog is chasing scent, or looking for scent as the team moves. The human needs to know how scent moves and make the conditions optimal for the dog to detect whatever is out there. 

Musa: How important is the coaching itself? What influences the dogs’ growth and learning?

Jana: Finding high quality coaching from experienced humans is always an issue in any complex task. Dog noses are a powerful tool. Human dog handlers and the human trainers must try to make the learning appealing to dogs and humans. The world of SAR is working on standard canine practices, with the goal of having OSHA level standards for many elements of SAR canine training and deployment ready testing.

Buzz on a much better day, looking all smoldering… His tinder pic, if he had a profile. Photo credit B.Parker

Musa: What is important for a lost person to do in order to make the dog’s job easier?

Jana: Quit moving…and carry lots of bacon!!

Musa: Do the dogs work in teams or on their own?

Jana: All SAR canine work by themselves. I’ve recently read about small groups of dogs being used to track poachers in some of the African wildlife protected areas. I think it’s a great idea and will be watching for results of these search packs of dogs. 

See a short video of Buzz in water training action here!

Learn more:

Jana’s SAR team website:  https://www.amrg.info

NASAR, the largest US organization for SAR: https://nasar.org

Facebook page, SAR Dogs of AMRG, for a TV interview featuring Jana