Saving Lives in Japan and the U.S.

March 15, 2011 | By | Comments (0)

In this raw footage from CNN, “Anatomy of the earthquake,” the sidewalk splits open beneath our feet, water bubbles up from the ground, and a dog barks in the background.

The news reports and images from Japan are horrifying; the devastation unimaginable.

Enter the dogs. Reuters reports that the U.S. Agency for International Development has deployed disaster assistance — including 144 people, and 12 dogs.

Somehow it is poetic that the rescue efforts are being led by rescues themselves.

SDF teams at base of operations Ofunato, Japan Photo CA-TF2
Search Dog Foundation teams at base of operations, Ofunato, Japan. Courtesy of SDF.

In Ofunato, on the northeast coast of Japan, a gymnasium serves as the base of operations for California Task Force 2, Virginia Task Force 1, and a British task force. Six of the canines and their firefighter-handlers hail from the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) in California. This organization partners rescued dogs with firefighters in order to find people trapped in the wreckage of disasters.

SDF teams getting settled at the gymnasium in Ofunato City Photo CA-TF2
SDF teams getting settled at the gymnasium in Ofunato, Japan. Courtesy of SDF.

Interestingly, the same canine characteristics that can challenge a family — hyperactivity and prey-driven behavior — can make dogs great candidates for rescue work. A dog that can think of nothing else but finding and retrieving a toy, i.e., has a one-track-mind, can be trained to climb up a rubble pile and locate a survivor.

In the photo below, Riley (of the SDF-trained team: Eric Gray & Riley, Santa Barbara County Fire), a 3 1/2 year-old rescued yellow lab, combs the pile of rubble in Japan.

Riley combing the wreckage Photo - LA Tech Fire Service
Riley combing the wreckage in Japan. Courtesy of SDF.

“Every minute counts as the teams work to find people buried beneath the rubble,” says SDF founder, Wilma Melville. “After the Haiti deployment, this is a battle-seasoned group. If there are people still alive in the rubble, the dogs will find them.”

Rescue personnel know that someone is in need of rescue when they hear a search dog’s “bark alert.” They also depend on the dogs’ ability to detect that no one is alive in the wreckage before moving on to the next site.

It is quite extraordinary, man or woman and “man’s best friend” working side by side, amidst such dangerous conditions. Similarly, a British soldier and his bomb-searching dog worked side by side in Afghanistan, to the bitter end (warning: tearjerker alert).

I propose we take a minute to celebrate the rescue dogs. Plus give some credit to the Internet, warts and all. For as we sit helplessly watching the footage from Japan on our computers and TV screens, the “one-click” campaigns make it quick and easy to sound the call for help. An article caught my eye with the headline, “Help Japan: Facebook Click Helps Dogs Rescue Trapped Quake Victims.” I learned that Charlie Annenberg Weingarten, Director of the Annenberg Foundation and Founder of, had challenged the interactive community from the floor of the SXSW festival, saying would donate up to $100,000 to the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation. For every “Like” of the “Dog Bless You” Facebook page (#dogblessyou, #dogs4japan), Explore would donate a dollar up to $100,000, or $200,000 if the page got 100,000 likes by March 13 at 2 a.m. EST. The page has over 150,000 likes.

Also harnessing the power of the Internet: Petfinder, which made today “Adopt the Internet Day.” “The fact is, homeless pets still need all the ‘marketing agents’ they can get,” said Betsy Banks Saul,’s co-founder. “That’s why on the 15th we want to celebrate by asking everyone to help us give an even louder World-Wide-Voice to homeless pets.”’s goal is to find homes for 2.5 million homeless animals in 2011. There are animals of all stripes in need of being rescued — cats, dogs, bunnies, birds, and horses — so, put your (computer) mouse to work!

Update: The search teams have returned from their deployment to Japan. SDF founder Wilma Melville said, “Though no survivors were found during the search, we are all so grateful to the teams, knowing they brought comfort to the devastated community, assuring residents that everything possible had been done to find survivors.” Watch video of the search dogs in action, in Japan.