Danger Dogs: Four Ways Highly Trained Working Animals Help Keep Us Safe
There are certain individuals who are just programmed to do amazingly heroic things day in and day out, from fighting four-alarm fires to plucking people from rain-swollen rivers.
But some of the more dangerous jobs that humans do, skilled canines can often do better.
Vetstreet looks at four types of fearless pups who approach their high-adrenaline day jobs with grace — and plenty of gumption — under pressure.
Coast Guard Canines
It's a drizzly morning on Staten Island, N.Y., and two dogs are demonstrating their sniffing techniques for tracking down the scent of explosive materials.
Camilla, a Belgian Malinois, and Satu, a German Shepherd Dog, take turns with their handlers, Petty Officer 2nd Class Nick Heinen and Petty Officer 2nd Class Jason Agar, at detecting contraband as easily as some dogs find favorite toys. Of course, when your pup goes in search of a rubber bone, you’re probably not left wondering if that chew toy happens to be attached to a timer.
These bomb-sniffing dogs, however, are trained to passively show that they've located something, as opposed to drug-sniffing dogs who often scratch at illegal goods. (If a dog were to scratch at a bomb, well, you get the picture.) There are only 14 such highly trained dogs in the Coast Guard — along with the same number of handlers — so it's a sought-after position among the 50,000 people in active service.
While stationed in Virginia, Heinen shut down an entire cruise ship terminal after Camilla “sat" on some suspect luggage. Luckily, the find was a false positive, but Camilla certainly proved her scenting skills. “The bag was from a guy who was in EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] over in Iraq, so the bag was in contact with explosives, and my dog got the scent," Heinen explains. "She did what she was supposed to do.”
When they aren’t working missions like inaugurations, international political conferences and other high-profile events, the handlers and their dogs train. “From the outside looking in, you see K-9 handlers walking their dog and think, ‘Man, they don’t do anything,’ ” says Agar. “[Heinen] and I are the hardest-working guys in our unit.”
Gas Pipeline Pups
Much like Coast Guard canines and many other working dogs, Bounce, a black Labrador Retriever who works for a company called Tekscent, follows his nose to chase down pipeline leaks that can cause big problems for petroleum companies.
“Although the dogs are almost always quick to find the leak, it seems like a miracle every time that they spot one, five or 10 miles down the pipe,” says Edward Griffin, director of operations for Tekscent. “Pipeline workers watch in awe of the dogs' desire to move down the pipe.”
Though tracking down flammable fuels seems perilous, Griffin claims that the biggest dangers faced by Bounce and other leak-detection dogs are actually ticks and snakes. “The pipeline is usually underground, and the dogs are looking for our patented odor, which signifies a leak," Griffin says. "The petroleum industry goes to great lengths to provide a safe work environment, as do we.”
Hero the Dalmatian also knows a thing or two about fire safety.
“Hero is an official firefighter for our department," says Lt. Don Williamson of the City of Chelsea Fire & Rescue Department in Chelsea, Ala. "He has his own ID card and badge and comes to work every B shift to serve alongside his fellow firefighters.”
There's a long history between Dalmatians and firefighting, which originated because of the breed's affection for horses and vice versa. When fire companies switched from using horse-drawn trucks to motorized vehicles, there was no longer a need for the dogs, who were used to help calm and protect the horses.
In most cases, firehouses that still have dogs today usually leave them back at the station when firefighters head off to the scene of a fire. But firehouse Chief Wayne Shirley believes in tradition, so Hero's role is more hands-on.
“Hero has started to ride the trucks on calls with his partners, since his training has been completed,” says Lt. Williamson, who adds that the Dalmatian travels safely tethered to a special seatbelt on the back seat of the engine. “[He rides] tongue and tail wagging, and ears flapping in the wind, as the siren and air horn sound.”
Once at the scene of an emergency, Hero's job is to guard the truck. "All the way back to the mid-1800s, Dalmatians would keep watch. Only the firemen attached to that [particular] wagon were allowed by that dog to move those hoses," Lt. Williamson says. "Hero is the only one that I know of in Alabama who still does the traditional things that Dalmatians once did."
High Sierra Ski Patrol Dogs
The common theme among all the handlers of dogs who work dangerous jobs is a commitment to providing the safest possible working atmosphere for their canine partners. That certainly applies to ski patrol dogs, who work search and rescue in potentially deadly circumstances.
Brian Slusser, assistant patrol manager at Alpine Meadows Ski Resort in Tahoe City, Calif., tries to keep his ski patrol dog, Shooter, out of harm’s way — and avalanches. “I don't take him out on avalanche control," Slusser says. "We'll have him on standby, waiting up at the patrol shacks or in the main office.”
Although the Golden Retriever’s job is perilous, Slusser stresses the importance of such working dogs when it comes to helping injured skiers and those trapped in avalanches. “The dogs have a keen sense of smell — much more than humans," he says. "They can find people really fast. They can perform when electronic devices are not available or not working properly.”
Despite their heroic service, these brave ski patrol, firehouse, leak-detection and bomb-sniffing pups usually work with as much — if not more — anonymity as their human handlers. “Lots of people in the Coast Guard aren't even aware that we have working dogs,” Heinen says. “I even met an admiral once who didn’t know about our K-9s!”