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To Search Fallen Buildings With a Single Hound

Campus Canines Train to be HOME Team Heroes of the Future

By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs
Posted January 12, 2000

HOME Team Canines

Tom Klatt, manager of the Office of Emergency Preparedness, plays with Marco Polo during a Saturday morning training of the K-9 Search and Rescue unit. Professor Robert Goldman and trainer Nicky Osypka, Marco's owner, look on.Peg Skorpinski photo

Kristin Luker arrived at the Saturday morning search and rescue training with a friend, two small children and her three-year old golden retriever, Misha.

"Dog handler in the morning, mommy in the afternoon, scholar in the evening," said the sociology and Jurisprudence and Social Policy prof, borrowing loosely from Karl Marx to sum up her existence.

As her entourage watched from the sidelines, Luker climbed into a concrete-rimmed well outside Koshland Hall -- dog toy in hand -- to coax Misha onto a terrain that canines typically avoid. Hesitant but toy crazy, Misha leapt over the rim and onto the steel grating.

Other dogs jumped on and off nearby grates in their snappy orange vests reading "Search and Rescue." Luker's son Ally, 3, wearing a yellow plastic hard hat, commenced to cry. A large Great Dane/German shepherd mix named Atticus Finch chased a campus squirrel.

No one resented the commotion.

"The more chaotic it is, the better the experience," said psychology graduate student Nicola (Nicky) Osypka, who for more than half a year has been training campus dogs how to search for humans buried under the rubble of collapsed buildings. "In an earthquake, the dogs are under extreme stress," Osypka said. "Everyone's yelling and worried. We try to mimic that."

An animal behaviorist who teaches wolf and canine behavior, Osypka has trained dogs in her native Germany for domestic and international rescue missions. Last spring, she approached the Office of Emergency Preparedness about creating a canine search and rescue unit for the quake-prone Berkeley campus.

Of more than 60 faculty, staff and students who attended her orientation meeting last April, a handful of suitable dogs, and their owners, are still in training for the HOME Team, which prepares campus personnel to volunteer in an emergency.

The commitment is substantial. Dogs and owners meet weekly -- on campus or at Bay Area rubble piles -- for at least two years. Those who pass the appropriate tests -- administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies -- may be deployed not only on campus but statewide or even internationally to save lives.

Not that the canines see it in those terms.

Dogs just want to have fun. So when man's best friend ventures onto a frightening surface or through a narrow space, it is not thinking altruistic thoughts, but of the prospect of playing tug of war with the person hiding with its toy.

Preparing a dog to be a reliable search and rescue animal can take much patient training, and the right dog to start with.

Obedience and a high motivation to play tug of war or fetch are desirable. But so is occasional disobedience, Osypka noted. If, for example, you tell a dog to search in one direction, but it senses that the victim is in another direction or that an aftershock is imminent, "it has to be independent enough to be disobedient," she said.

As the rescue dogs of tomorrow practiced braving the grating, Osypka evaluated two new prospects.

The owners of one, a border collie named Joe, looked on like anxious stage moms as the trainer held an audition on the grass.

"He seems pretty attached," Osypka told Joe's humans. "If the first thing the dog does when he's upset is go to the owner, then the likelihood is, he won't search."

She had better news for Sanskrit scholar Robert Goldman: his golden retriever, Zephyr, though out of shape, seemed to have the right personality profile.

The group moved to the basement of Tolman Hall, where linoleum, echoes, flourescent lights and other adversities offer a challenging environment for the dogs -- and practice in a campus building they might need to return to in a disaster.

There, the owners took turns sending their canines off to search, as Osypka carefully observed each dog, "victim" and owner.

"It's more challenging to train the trainer than the dog," she noted. "Trainers have their theories of how things work."

Sounding a bit like a psychotherapist, she analyzed each practice foray in terms of the animal's personal history and disposition, suggesting ways to "build the dog's confidence" or "set the dog up for success."

For Atticus Finch, a "rescue" from the pound, getting physically close to a human is a challenge. Misha initially refused to search when other dogs were present. Chip, the youngest and most sensitive of the team, takes a while to recover from any bad experience.

Chip's "mom," grad student Ann Bach, said her dog has matured remarkably over the course of the training. Bach, meanwhile, has learned more than she expected about canine body language and behavior. What she initially had in mind was merely the chance "to work on an intense training level" with Chip, and possibly to help someone in the long run.

"If one of the dogs save even one person's life, it would all be worth it," she said.

Getting to observe Osypka's German shepherd, Marco Polo, in action has been both instructive and inspirational for the handlers.

"Marco has been prepping for this his whole life," said Bach. "To be able to watch him is fantastic -- to see what we're working toward."

That day, Marco lay patiently on the floor while all the others practiced. When at last it was his turn, Osypka decided to challenge him with an extended search.

"He has to learn to search for 20 minutes and not find anyone," she explained.

The "victim" took the elevator to a hiding place on another floor. After a few minutes, Marco took the stairs. He investigated the lobby on Tolman's ground floor, then returned to the stairwell and climbed two flights. On the third floor, he searched a long hallway -- with no luck -- and returned.

The women's bathroom was open. Marco went in; a surprised-looking human, followed by a large dog, came out. Marco started down a second hallway.

At the far end, he got excited. Using his front paws, he opened the glass door connecting the building's Psych and Education wings and, in his huge voice, barked 15 times at the crouching victim.




January 12 - 18, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 17)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
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Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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