SCDF search dog barks when she finds a survivor, whimpers when it's a corpse
When two-year-old labrador retriever Rizzo picks up the scent of survivors in a disaster zone, she barks excitedly to signal to rescuers to search the area.
But if she sniffs out a corpse, the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) search dog makes other behavioural responses like whimpering.
Rizzo was one of four search canines the SCDF took with its 68-man contingent to Turkey in February after earthquakes struck the south-eastern part of the country on Feb 6.
The quake and its aftershocks caused thousands of buildings to collapse in Turkey and neighbouring Syria, killing more than 55,000 people.
SCDF sent a group of 20 officers on Feb 8 to the Turkish town of Kahramanmaras, near the quake’s epicentre, to help with rescue operations.
A second team, comprising 48 officers and the four dogs, arrived on Feb 10.
The contingent, codenamed Operation Lionheart, returned to Singapore on Feb 18.
After the dogs had completed a month-long quarantine, The Sunday Times spoke to the search commander of the contingent, Captain Joel Ee Yong En, about how the canines had coped in Turkey.
He said the operation was the dogs’ first overseas mission.
Besides Rizzo, there was a five-year-old cocker spaniel named Timmy, as well as two other labrador retrievers, Frenchy and Jack, who are aged two and six. Frenchy and Rizzo are sisters.
The dogs had not arrived in Turkey yet when SCDF helped save two survivors – a 12-year-old boy and a man – trapped in the rubble of collapsed buildings at two locations. The boy was rescued on Feb 8 and the man on Feb 10.
The canines were deployed to look for survivors in areas where the Turkish authorities believed there might be trapped victims. At some of these sites, locals claimed they heard relatives cry out for help.
Capt Ee said that while the dogs did not find any survivors, they helped to confirm it was unlikely anyone had survived the quake in the areas they searched.
“The dogs did not give any false indications they had found someone, which we confirmed using search equipment,” he added.
If the dogs were to get trapped in rubble, which has not happened before, the steps taken to rescue them would be no different from that for saving a person.
Capt Ee said an SCDF rescue engineer will first assess the structural stability of the building. If the structure is unstable, it would have to be stabilised before rescuers can enter it to save the dog.
With temperatures dropping to minus 7 deg C at night, SCDF took steps to ensure the canines stayed warm in Turkey.
This included wearing thermal vests, sleeping with blankets and covering their sleeping area with tarpaulin sheets to trap the heat.
Capt Ee said the dogs adapted very well to the cool weather, which was about 10 deg C to 11 deg C in the daytime.
He said: “They were very comfortable and could start working the day after arriving in Turkey. We were able to stretch their work and play time as a result.”
Once they donned their work vests, the dogs got into work mode right away.
They typically worked for 30 minutes, followed by 30 minutes of rest. They completed up to three work cycles before taking a longer break lasting three to four hours.
Even in a natural disaster zone, the dogs got to play with their handlers to lift their spirits and stretch their legs.
Said Capt Ee: “As far as possible, we try to take them out for their happy time. We brought their favourite tennis balls and played fetch with them in quieter areas.”
On top of lending their keen sense of smell in the search for survivors, the dogs were a huge morale booster for rescuers on site.
“Everyone loved the dogs and were always happy to be in their company and look after them. Their presence gave us comfort and lifted our spirits,” said Capt Ee.
The following SCDF search dogs were deployed in Turkey:
Timmy, cocker spaniel, 5
- Calm in nature, Timmy’s small stature allows him to fit into confined spaces to look for survivors. He was greeted warmly by the Turkish people, including children, at airports and work sites.
Jack, Labrador retriever, 6
- Jack is quick to find entry points into rubble. He tries to get as close as possible to survivors to nail down their location.
Frenchy, Labrador retriever, 2
- Energetic and loyal, Frenchy can locate survivors swiftly and is fearless when searching for them.
Rizzo, Labrador retriever, 2
- Frenchy’s sister, Rizzo, is disciplined and a hard worker, qualities that make her a good search canine as she has a strong desire to learn.