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Disaster dogs go through the daily paces

IT is 6am, a time when most people and their pet companions are still sound asleep. But for the team of ten 19-month-old specialist search dogs and their firemen handlers, another busy work day has just started.

Waiting ahead is another tight schedule of physical exercise and skill-training programs.

The hard efforts are to improve the dogs' skills in quickly spotting signs of life, staying physically strong and to better cooperate with their handlers to rescue victims buried under debris in emergencies and disasters.

After the catastrophic Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, the Shanghai Fire Control Bureau started preparations to establish a specialist rescue dog team in the city.

Now the team has been in existence for 10 months and the members include four labrador retrievers, four springer spaniels, two German shepherds and 15 fire officers, who are their trainers, guardians and best friends.

The three canine species are proven to be the best qualified to service as specialist rescue dogs, the officers explained.

All the dogs were bred by China's military dog training base in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. They were only nine-month-old puppies when they met their current handlers to embark on an extremely disciplined life, to save human lives, while their domestic counterparts are free to enjoy snacks and play naughtily anytime they want.

A routine day for the "dog soldiers" begins with a morning warm-up jogging together with their masters. In the morning, they are also arranged for more skill-oriented exercises to improve their abilities to sniff for traces of life under debris, learn to identify disturbance scents and to follow blood traces to find missing people.

The canines' afternoon program may seem too demanding for many human adults as it focuses on physical training. At times, they are required to complete a 20-kilometer hard march or a 10-kilometer hill march, according to their handlers.

To help them better adapt to working under disastrous circumstances, the dogs also need to complete daily programs of agility training.

Some special tasks include jumping over or dodging through barriers of various heights, walking on balance beams and also jumping through rings of fire. Practice makes perfect and during real emergency tasks, the conditions they have to traverse could be even more different and challenging than the simulated conditions in training.

The dogs look no different from their household counterparts but they are working and living under much more stringent disciplines, required by their duties.

"When the dogs make big mistakes during the training, we hand out some immediate physical stimulation to correct them," said Chen Xiangtai, the team captain.

In specific, Chen said the dogs would be punished immediately when they picked up stray food that wasn't fed to them. "They must be trained to only eat food given only by the trainers. Otherwise, it would be too disturbing and dangerous on the rescue fields," Chen explained.

The officers allow no room for lenience or indulgence for their dogs on the work and training fields, but that to no extent, lessens their close and deep emotional bonds with their animal colleagues.

Soon after having the puppies, the soldiers came into an agreement that they would drop the custom muscular names routinely adopted for military dogs, such as "black tiger" or "black jaguar," and give their dogs more creative and friendly names. The chosen naming scheme, derived from the firemen's common craze for soccer, eventually consisted of the names of top soccer players: so you will find Kaka, Robben and Drogba crouching their bodies to jump through fire rings, followed by Beckham and Owen on one of their daily training sessions.

Spending nearly 24 hours together each day, the dogs and their guiding officers are now bonded as closely as family.

"At first, I was a little scared when the dog flashed his sharp teeth at me as I tried to take back the ball when playing with him," recalled Yan Huaqing, an officer who works with a German shepherd. "The shepherd puppies sometimes rubbed their teeth against our shoulders but they wouldn't really bite. The mutual trust just grew up gradually day by day," Yan said.

Even when the soldiers are on their annual home-visit leave, they ring their fellow soldiers each day to check if their canine buddies are doing fine, said the team captain.

Yan recalled their first days with the puppies back in Nanjing's training base: in order to quickly bond with their future animal partners, they got in the doghouses early in the morning and spent long hours with them.

"It was mid-summer. But we didn't use any bug repellent because it would hamper early development of the puppies' sense of smell. At the end of day, I always got many mosquito bites but I still liked staying with my dog," Yan said.Selecting the dogs

The three breeds of canines are the best to work as sniffer and search dogs because of their genetic dispositions, according to experts. Labrador Retrievers are particularly famous for their mild nature and the easiest to train among the three types. They are more suitable to work on wide and large search fields.

German shepherds are relatively more aggressive but they can be trained to curb the instinct and they carry the sharpest sense to distinguish different scents.

Springer spaniels are the smallest of the three species but they are especially agile in jumping over barriers and also run the fastest. They are needed in narrow rescue sites.Team's first task

The team's first task was on April 18 this year. An action alert suspended the team's daily training classes. Four of the dogs and officers were dispatched to a building collapse site on Changqing Road, where seven people were buried.

The victims were all found alive in time and rushed to hospitals, said the officers.

During this task, the dogs successfully located the victims under debris and had demonstrated they could adapt to unfamiliar environments smoothly to perform search duties, officers said.

However, for the young team, they still have a long way ahead to become more professional and skilled. The officers said a grown-up search dog usually needs to pass more than 40 training programs with escalating degrees of difficulty.


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