By: Joanne Ewen, JD, EMT, DOT-I, K9 Handler
Working and training with the Northstar Search and Rescue (SAR) Team has given me a deep appreciation for handlers and their dogs. I became curious about the beginnings of SAR and when dogs were first recognized as having the ability, the willingness, and the desire to track and save humans. Which highly recognizable breed do you think made up the first search and rescue team?
In 1660, the venerable St. Bernard dog was first used in the West Alps to accompany the Augustine monks of the Great St. Bernard Hospice, established to find and save lost and injured travelers along the dangerous St. Bernard’s Mountain Pass. By 1750, these dogs were being sent out in teams of two or three dogs to find and rescue travelers by themselves. One or two dogs stayed with the victim, lying on top of him to warm him, while another dog went back to the Hospice to get help. There we have the sequence of steps of today’s SAR ‘area search’ dog: search, find, indicate (communicate the find to handler), re-find (bring handler to victim). Apparently the oft-depicted small whiskey barrel seen on many photos of these dogs is, sadly, just wishful thinking.
Fast forward to World War I in which Sergeant Stubby, a Pit Bull Terrier, became America’s first and most decorated WWI war dog and the only dog promoted to sergeant through combat. Not only did Stubby locate injured soldiers and carry out other duties, but he also captured a German spy all by himself (first tripping him then biting the seat of his pants!). Many dogs have served as soldiers in wars and continue to do so.
Newfoundlanders most often do water rescue. In 1931, Swansea Jack rescued a 12-year-old boy who fell off the docks in Swansea, Wales. He continued his heroic rescuers another 27 times, and was honored with several awards and a silver cup.
The first SAR dog to arrive within minutes of the 9/11 attack was Appollo, a German Shepherd in the K-9 unit of NYPD. Appollo was almost killed by flames and falling debris, but he was wet from falling into a pool of water just before and it saved him. His handler brushed the debris off Appollo and the dog went right back to work locating people. Appollo was awarded the Dickin Medal (for extraordinary bravery and exceptional devotion to duty).
Bretagne, a Golden Retriever, is the last living Ground Zero SAR dog today. Her handler explains that these dogs worked Ground Zero for 12 hours a day, and when they weren’t searching for victims they were comforting the human rescuers. Just the sight of the working dogs could bring a smile to overwhelmed workers, and Bretagne would approach them and just lay her head on a lap to provide consolation.
There are many famous dogs throughout history, but it’s the everyday heroes who make our lives interesting and satisfying. Here’s to all the dogs dedicated to others and the owners who make them the best they can be.