Uncle Matty: Fide canem

By From page B1 | December 31, 2012

Fide canem: the creed of canine search-and-rescue organizations. These two words often adorn their logos or sit high atop their websites. Reassuring words. They are Latin for “trust the dog.”
“Trust the dog” is the first rule new SAR dog handlers learn. That rule paid handsomely in Haiti, where SAR teams were responsible for a record number of saved lives when a monumental earthquake shook the Western hemisphere’s poorest country to its core. Debra Tosch, executive director of the Search Dog Foundation, told the Los Angeles Daily News, “When you go on a mission like this hoping to get one rescue, one find, the fact that they’re having multiple rescues is just amazing.”
SDF is a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to strengthen disaster response in America by recruiting rescued dogs and partnering them with firefighters and other first responders to find people buried alive in the wreckage of disasters.”
After the earthquake in January 2010, at least 175 SAR dogs and their handlers arrived on the scene to do their part. Dogs from the Netherlands and China. From Ireland and France. From the United States, Britain and Canada. Mexico, Peru and Taiwan. Dogs from Spain, Iceland, Germany and Venezuela.
What makes these dogs so invaluable?
In the context of a calamity like quake-ravaged Haiti, one certified SAR dog is the equivalent of 40 human beings trained in disaster relief. A certified SAR team — one dog, one handler — can accomplish more in these circumstances in 10 minutes than a single person could in several hours.
How do they do it?
By the divine light of their natural-born gifts, in part. Dogs possess night-vision without the funny goggles. Their ears pick up more sound frequencies than ours, and their bodies are more agile. They are smaller, lighter and fearless under conditions that would reduce most of us to nightmares.
The reason behind the credo, though, is that famous canine sniffer. While a person has about 5 million olfactory sensory cells, a dog can have up to 220 million. Canines perceive certain smells in the range of one part in 10 quadrillion. And one-third of a dog’s brain is devoted to olfaction, meaning he is “scent smart.” According to Gary Settles, professor of mechanical engineering at Penn State University, who studied the canine olfactory system for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, “They use scent the way we read the newspaper.”
To put that in normal domestic dog terms, that’s how your dog can mark the same spot on the carpet repeatedly, no matter how much perfumed cleanser you drown it in. But for bomb-sniffing dogs, cadaver-sniffing dogs or search-and-rescue dogs, this heightened sensitivity becomes the stuff of superheroes. And it is why SAR canine handlers are taught, above all: Fide canem.
Specialized training with an expert handler turns a dog’s unique gifts into a lifesaving skillset. Tosch said of the SAR teams’ role in Haiti, “All SDF handlers are experts in reading their canines… The canines are literally the Task Force’s most precious tool in the hunt for survivors: Their well-being is mission-critical.”
And that well-being is ensured. SDF repays their debt of gratitude to these distinguished dogs by guaranteeing a cushy retirement. Not that these hardworking canines seem overly concerned with their benefits plan.
Terry Trepanier, a lieutenant with the Washington Twp. Fire Department, and his golden retriever, Woody, spent 10 days at Ground Zero after September 11. “To know what they’ve been through and to see how they performed makes you proud. And they never complain,” said Trepanier. “They just wag their tails and say, ‘Let’s go.’”
These remarkable dogs are a part of our lives. We pass them in airports, cruise by them at border crossings and sail past them at our nation’s ports. We read about them when children go missing or when a victim of Alzheimer’s disappears. More than a decade ago, we all sat riveted as they reported for duty when the Twin Towers crumbled in New York City. And more recently, we stood by as they responded to the cry for help in Haiti.
Next time you encounter one, be sure to issue a much-deserved scratch behind the ears.
To find out more about SDF’s SAR dogs or to make a donation, visit Or google “search and rescue dogs” to extend your research to other similarly worthy organizations.

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Matthew Margolis

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