On August 16, according to Reuters, highly specialized search dogs that have undergone a year of rigorous training are being used on Maui to aid in the aftermath of the deadly wildfires from the previous week. These dogs not only require intense training but also possess a specific personality suited for the task of finding missing remains and providing closure to grieving families.
Mary Cablk, an expert in detection and systems at the Desert Research Institute in Nevada, who has trained numerous canines and designed training programs for handlers, emphasized that dogs with certain characteristics are well-suited for this role.
Traits such as a strong desire to play, an obsession with their toys, confidence, agility, and fearlessness of loud noises and unusual surfaces are vital for the job. Cablk, who conducts searches with her own dogs and has contributed to training, clarified that these traits are important for search dogs even though she is not directly involved in the Maui recovery operation.
The recent devastating wildfires on Maui resulted in the loss of at least 101 lives, marking it as the most fatal fire in the United States in a century. To aid in the search and recovery efforts, FEMA’s urban search and rescue teams have deployed 20 dogs as of Monday.
Jeremy Greenberg, FEMA’s director of operations, highlighted the challenges of the search due to the difficult conditions on Maui. While understanding the urgency families feel to find their missing loved ones, Greenberg stressed the importance of conducting the search with safety and respect.
Trained cadaver dogs, which undergo rigorous training lasting up to a year, are capable of searching the remains of up to several dozen homes each day. The number of searches conducted varies based on the prevailing conditions. Hawaii’s government reported that the fires destroyed over 2,200 structures, with 86% of them being residential buildings.
These specialized dogs are trained to detect burnt human remains and can differentiate between human and animal remains. After locating remains, they are trained not to become overly excited and run around, which could potentially damage the scene. Instead, they lie down to indicate a discovery.
In addition, they are trained to signal handlers without approaching the remains or the affected area. This adaptation in training methods was developed based on lessons learned from previous deadly wildfires in California, such as the Camp Fire in Paradise, which claimed 86 lives.
Mary Cablk compared the training of cadaver dogs to teaching hospitals using cadavers for medical instruction.
The dogs are taught to associate the scent of human remains with a reward, typically a chew toy. Successfully finding remains earns the dog the opportunity to play with the toy, serving as their incentive. Handlers carry the reward toy, and some dogs even check to ensure it’s with the handler before proceeding.
In summary, highly trained search dogs are playing a critical role in aiding the search and recovery efforts following the devastating wildfires on Maui. These dogs require not only intense training but also specific traits that make them suited for the task of locating remains and providing solace to grieving families.