Republic of Poland

Man and dog – a life-saving team

24 January 2018

WUELS’ veterinarians are going to treat GOPR (Górskie Ochotnicze Pogotowie Ratunkowe, eng. – Mountain Volunteer Emergency Service), WOPR (Wodne Ochotnicze Pogotowie Ratunkowe, eng. – Aquatic Volunteer Emergency Service) and OSP (Ochotnicza Straż Pożarna, eng. – Volunteer Fire Brigade) dogs, and their guardians talk about choosing and training dogs which save lives, what a search mission with dogs’ involvement looks like, and why anyone becomes a voluntary rescuer in the first place.

WUELS took on the task of providing veterinary care for SAR dogs and a watchdog of WOPR, and SAR dogs and ”retired” dogs of OSP and GOPR. Specialistic medical examination, diagnostic tests, essential lab analyses and dogs’ treatment are going to be free of charge, dog owners will only have to pay for the used medical materials.

Voluntary rescuers talk about their dogs which even the best equipment can’t replace, about search mission the dogs take part in day and night, and about why one becomes a rescuer, in the first place, in their free time and for free.

search and rescue dogs, Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences, WUELS,
fot. OSP archives

– When choosing an appropriate dog, it’s not the breed that is so important (of course there are breeds that get chosen much more often than others), it’s the predisposition of a particular dog for the job. It’s verified through qualifying exams for young dogs, and then yearly exams checking whether a dog is still in shape and can continue to work – says Jacek Falkenberg, GOPR rescuer, the owner of a 7-year-old German Shepard named Rico, which he takes on search missions with him.

Magdalena Szewczyk-Dzido, WOPR and OSP rescuer, the owner and guardian of two SAR dogs named Frida and Sticz, also handles dog training. A 7-week old puppy is tested to see whether it has predispositions for the job – whether it’ll come up to a stranger in a strange place, whether it’ll respond to calling, fetch, follow a human, be willing to play, or how it’ll react to sounds and unexpected phenomena… SAR dogs can’t be timid, afraid of noise, or afraid of walking on uneven grounds. Instead they have to be very physically fit, persistent and loot-driven – only then will they search for humans. Upon turning 12 months, dogs take mental tests.

search and rescue dogs, Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences, WUELS
fot. WOPR archives

–  We don’t put emphasis on obedience, quite the contrary – we emphasize independent decision-making. If an obedient dog finds a man under the debris, and we call the dog off not knowing about it, it will simply come back to us. We’ll leave behind a man we went looking for. On a mission it’s the dog that makes decisions and it needs to know it can take the initiative, decide, that at this particular moment obedience is not important. In training, when the dog is with a sham, a potential missing person, I get in the car and drive away. And the dog is supposed to stay with the person it’s just found – says the rescuer, adding that she doesn’t use food as a reward while training dogs. It’s so that the dog, while going through the debris, doesn’t focus on a fridge instead of a missing person. It’s the same situation with clothes that smell of humans, there could be a warm bed linen or a laundry basket under the debris, and every time we would spend a lot of time and energy trying to dig it out, instead of keeping looking. That’s why our dogs look for someone to play with – they only react to the smell of human breath.

search and rescue dogs, Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences, WUELS
fot. GOPR archives

– A well-trained SAR dog, above all, is a dog which can work independently in every condition. At GOPR, on average, we conduct 200 search missions a year, 90% of them are successful. Dogs looking for people both dead and alive are involved in most of those missions. They signal finding a missing person by barking around the spot it was found in or by coming back to their guardian with an appropriate signal – usually it’s a little leash hanging around the dog’s neck that a dog takes in its mouth, announcing its success. We used dogs for the very first time in 1968 in Biały Jar. Back then, two dogs from Czech emergency service found  9 of 19 victims of the greatest tragedy in Polish mountains – explains GOPR member, describing his most important missions:

– I will forever remember my first find with Rick. The search mission was taking place in the area of Kowary, we joined, as always, at the police’s request. After two hours we found the missing person – he was lying on the ground, in hypothermia. The emotions of finding someone alive are undescribable. The most difficult, due to weather conditions, was the search mission in the area of Kocioł Smogorni in Karkonosze – with the visibility limited to one meter – and it was a challenge, both for me and Rick.

search and rescue dogs, Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences, WUELS
fot. OSP archive

– A 4-year-old child went missing around the Książ Castle. We spent all night searching for it, a lot of resources and effort were put into it. Every time we search for a child, there are extreme emotions, and that time it was escalated by the mother, being driven around the forest by the police, calling out to her child. ”Wojtuś, come to mama” could be heard everywhere. Fortunately, the boy was found at 8 am – says Szewczyk-Dzido and admits that missions are always connected with someone’s tragedy so they’re not easy for the rescuers either.

So why does one become a voluntary rescuer? Jacek Falkenberg has a simple answer: – We sometimes say that a rescuer is something you are, not tend to be. I’ve always wanted to help people, and thanks to GOPR I can do it in the mountains. Magdalena Szewczyk-Dzido says she doesn’t really know why. – Sometimes we joke around saying it’s some type of masochism – because it takes a lot of your private time, energy, money, usually the phone rings in the evening or at night, and a lot of us go to regular work. Often it’s families which take a child to a rubble site for dog training, and not to a playground. It’s partly because of our desire for working with dogs which are members of our families. It gives us a lot of satisfaction – the rescuer also admits that lifesaving is a contagious passion. – My daughter was 14 when she got her first newfoundland dog and started working in WOPR. Today we go on  missions together – so it’s a chance to become friends with your own child. Because we’re a cool group of people who spend an awful lot of time with each other. So maybe it’s just a way of life.

search and rescue dogs, Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences, WUELS
fot. OSP archives