When a disaster occurs in a densely populated or urban area, specially trained rescue dogs are on call to help find victims buried in rubble and debris. Katrina shares an inside look at what it’s like to train her search dog Kinsey.

Kinsey is a FEMA certified live find search and rescue dog. After a building collapse, she is trained to run across piles of debris and bark at any person she can smell but not see. She will run by people working on the pile, buried food and even freshly worn clothing. If you’re trapped, she’ll get as close to you as she can and bark. Then I’ll get there, mark the spot and tell heavy rescue where to start digging.

A victim’s perspective during training.

It sounds very dramatic, doesn’t it? The truth is, we’ve never been deployed and statistically we’ll be lucky to be deployed once within Kinsey’s lifetime. That doesn’t bother me, because heading out to abandoned buildings, cement recycling plants and wood recycling plants to train dogs is so much fun. And, because we love to train as much as we can, I know that if there’s ever a disaster and we’re called out to help, we’ll be ready.

Kinsey, Ava and Faith on the agility course.

While Kinsey loves people, that’s not why she’s a search dog. Kinsey is obsessed with toys. Obsessed like risk her own life without a second thought obsessed. That drive, along with her even temperament, is why Kinsey springs over hunks of cement and rebar to bark at people. She wants to play tug of war with a piece of stuffed fire hose. There aren’t many dogs in the world that crazy, and I’m blessed to have Kinsey as my partner.

Rook plays with a Huckama after training.

Five or six of us meet up every weekend to train. Some mornings we start by running the dogs through our agility course. Kinsey will climb a six foot ladder, walk across a plank, hunker down to go under the crawl through and trot up and down the teeter totter. She’s happy to work, and all for a toss of the toy.


Faith practicing agility.
Kinsey on the agility course.

Next, all of the dogs run at the alert tube–I think of it as their warm up. The victim hops into the tube, pulls the lid tight, and rewards each dog with a toy and a game of tug after a series of three to five barks. There’s a lot of praise, and wiggly, joyful dogs.

Rook is rewarded with a game of tug at the alert tube.


Kinsey is rewarded for finding a victim.

After every dog has a turn, we go on the pile and bury each other under cement or wood, depending on the training location. (To train search and rescue dogs you can’t be claustrophobic!) In January, when it’s relatively cold in Southern California, being buried under slabs of cement requires layers of clothing. Depending on the number of dogs running that day, I’ll be in a hole for anywhere between thirty minutes to an hour. There isn’t much wiggle room, and there’s certainly no heat!

As I hear a dog approach, I stay quiet, hold the toy still. The dog will circle wide, come back in, whine, bark once, move a step, bark again. None of that gets a response from me. I wait until the dog quits moving, picks the spot with the strongest scent, and gives a series of three to five barks. Then out comes the toy, and we play tug of war while I tell the dog how brilliant he is! Finding me wasn’t easy! I also hold tight to the toy to train victim loyalty. (A search dog must stay with the victim until their handler arrives, or else the handler doesn’t know where to flag victim location.) Once I hear the handler, I let go and wait in silence for the next dog.

Xero is rewarded for a successful find.
Rook is rewarded, too!

Eventually, someone comes and trades out with me, and I get to run Kinsey. My goal with her is to set up problems so that she can find the victim independently. While searching a pile involves both of us, Kinsey is the one that sniffs out people, so she has to be confident and willing to work on her own. I check the wind, look for a good access point, release her Ruffwear collar and send her up onto the pile. Today, with a chill in the air, she bounded up and found her first victim in under three minutes. I navigated my way up, congratulated her, and sent her again through the middle of the pile. Within a couple of minutes she found victim number two. Then we went back to the car so we could both get some water and Kinsey could rest up for the next problem.

About noon, we ended training and let the dogs out for play time with the Ruffwear Huckama. Just another day of Superdog fun.

Kinsey and Rook enjoying some playtime with a Huckama.


For more stories on Kinsey’s life as a FEMA certified live find search and rescue dog, follow Katrina’s blog and social media handles: @thesuperdogblog (Instagram & Twitter) and The Superdog Blog (Facebook). Thanks for sharing your story, Katrina!

4 thoughts

Leave a Reply