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Man’s Best Friend: The Unsung Heroes of Disaster Rescue
Published on 25 August 2023
On International Dog Day, we're shining a light on the vital role of Search and Rescue dogs in disaster scenarios. Dive into the real-life experiences of handlers and their dedicated canine partners, focusing on the journey of Dušan from Slovenia. With decades of expertise, Dušan gives us a firsthand look into the rigorous training, challenges, and deep trust involved in these rescue missions.
By Knowledge Network – Staff member
In the quiet moments after a disaster, a small sound from under the debris can mean everything. Amidst the chaos, a dog sniffs, searches, and finally barks, signaling the potential presence of a survivor. This scene, though heart-wrenching, underscores the significance of Search and Rescue (SAR) dogs and their extraordinary bond with their handlers. Amidst this brigade is Dušan Weber, a seasoned handler from the picturesque landscapes of Slovenia, whose life's journey is intertwined with his loyal canine companions.
Starting his venture into dog rescue training with his own German Shepherd, Dušan was nudged by colleagues who saw the potential in the duo. "That's how I began my tryst with rescue dog training at Mountain Rescue,” Dušan reminisces. Over three decades later, he stands tall in the rescue community, having trained a multitude of dogs, each leaving indelible footprints on his career path.
His affiliation with the International Search and Rescue Dog Organisation (IRO) and its Slovenian member organization, Društvo vodnikov reševalnih psov Slovenije (DVRPS), places him at the forefront of global excellence in canine rescue. The IRO, in particular, sets the gold standard for training, certification, and deployment of SAR dog teams, ensuring that when the situation demands, only the best are on the field.
In the world of search and rescue operations, the importance of dogs cannot be overstated. These canines undergo rigorous training, and their keen senses are often the last ray of hope in the aftermath of disasters. Their unparalleled ability to detect human scent makes them indispensable during operations in vast areas with numerous collapsed structures.
The selection process for these heroic dogs is meticulous. “Serious breeders begin preparing puppies for rescue roles quite early. At about one and a half months, they're introduced to unfamiliar materials and unstable conditions to gauge their adaptability” notes Dušan. By the time they mature, only a handful will be apt for such demanding roles. "The dog must demonstrate independence, a high drive, physical robustness, and unwavering trust in their handler," elaborates Dušan. It's this trust that distinguishes a regular dog from a SAR dog. A deep-seated bond, born from shared experiences, training sessions, and real missions, solidifies this trust. “With my dog, we are a team. I must trust my dog, and she/he must trust me”.
Reflecting on the intricacies of his relationship with Ares, his current canine companion, Dušan shared a memorable moment from their training days: “During one of our training sessions with Ares, my loyal Labrador, something unexpected happened. As we were immersed in our exercise, Ares suddenly heard the familiar voice of his former trainer, who is also my partner. He couldn't resist; the moment she spoke, he darted off from my side to hers. I couldn't help but laugh at that. It was a testament to the deep bonds dogs form, not just with their current handlers but also those who've been a part of their journey. Such moments make you realize that the bond between a handler and their dog goes beyond formal training; it's built on trust and shared experiences. Building that trust with Ares took time and patience, but the bond we have now is rock solid.”
During training, the exercises are tailored to be engaging and positive for the dogs. However, when deployed on actual rescue missions, the emotional toll can be profound. Dušan emphasises the intricate connection between a handler and their dog, stating, "In my role, I'm exposed to intense situations. But it's crucial to remember that our dogs are in tune with our emotions. If I'm anxious or upset, my dog might pick up on that and mirror those feelings. Each handler-dog pair develops its own coping strategies. For me, the comfort has always been in the unspoken bond I share with my dog."
In 1999, Dušan was deployed with his Labrador, Orka, to Türkiye after a devastating earthquake. As his first significant deployment with a search and rescue dog, the mission was daunting; navigating through debris, witnessing the direct consequences of a natural calamity, and clinging to the hope of finding survivors. The experiences from this mission, as Dušan reflects, were pivotal. "With Orka by my side, it became a transformative learning phase, which equipped us for future challenges."
On the occasion of the International Dog Day, we would like to honour the extraordinary relationships between search and rescue dogs and their handlers—teams that serve as lifelines in times of disaster and rise to incredible challenges.
About the author
The Knowledge Network – Staff member
The Knowledge Network editorial team is here to share the news and stories of the Knowledge Network community. We'd love to hear your news, events and personal stories about your life in civil protection and disaster risk management. If you've got a story to share, please contact us.