Thirty dogs and even more handlers got a crash course in search and rescue training through the Texas Engineering Extension Service's Disaster Canine Workshop.
"What we're doing here today is that we've opened our training up to other canines in the state," said Susann Brown, the canine training program's head, "and we have four basic training stations that are pre-skills for the disaster search that they're doing."
For Texas Task Force One, a search dog has to be between one and three years old and at least 40 pounds, with the right motivation, nerve strength and social skills. The overall bar is raised high when it comes to dogs than can be a part of their team.
"We have a very selective screening program for our canines," Brown said. "There's very few canines that handlers would like to have come into our program actually screen into it. In fact, it's about one in 20. The criteria are very strict because the job they do is very difficult."
And those high standards translate into a rigorous day for handlers from around Texas who come to the triannual program. The class challenges the dogs' mental and physical abilities through a number of different courses. But all the agility and performance and command tests the dogs and trainers go through are just the preliminaries to the big tests -- the giant piles of wood and stone the dogs learn to maneuver through.
Local first responder Casey England brought his dog, Dakota, to the school "I like to take Dakota to as many different environments as I can to familiarize him with everything," he said. "We never know in a search what we could be encountered with, so if we come out and train in similar environments, it's less challenging, less daunting for the dog."
The carefully constructed stacks of rubble the dogs are shown through at Disaster City are challenging, but the course is meant to be that way, not only for the canines, but their handlers as well.
"What we like is not so much that the dogs get a lot of training," said Brown. "They certainly get some training, but it's really more for the handlers to learn what they need to have in a dog for a disaster dog, as well as the amount of effort a handler has to put into it to be a disaster canine handler."
"It's something you have to dedicate yourself to," said Vickie Spears, another handler who brought her dog to the course. "It's not something you can do as a hobby or part time. You have to be very committed and very dedicated to it, and your dog has to want to do it. You can't force a dog to do this."
"He enjoys this," said England of Dakota, "but I do it because I enjoy it, too. It's definitely a duel love."
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