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The Call to Help: Communities on the Frontlines of Disasters

A Story from Superpower Dogs

Flattened houses, uprooted trees, dispossessed families, sirens, flashing lights… For most of us, picturing a community in the aftermath of a natural disaster brings to mind powerful if not heartbreaking scenes of destruction. While these types of images usually inform the media narrative of such events, taking a closer look can reveal a story of inspiration lying just beneath the surface of tragedy.

Despite the vulnerability humans face when thrust into intense, unexpected circumstances, these moments also elevate us to collectively be at our best. Disaster can serve as a catalyst for solidarity and selflessness, and remind us of the special bonds we create through a common purpose of helping others. To see this phenomenon in action, look no further than the most important members of any disaster response team: the search and rescue dogs.

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No matter the type of disaster, first responder teams rush to hit the frontlines in the most crucial moments to aid those in need. When every minute counts, finding imperiled humans faster than humanly possible is a challenge only our four-legged friends can rise to meet. These incredible animals use their sense of smell to find and recover disaster victims in the most treacherous conditions, often buried beneath many feet of earth, crumbled structures, and debris. However it is an unshakable loyalty to their handler that enables these dogs to work 18 consecutive 11-hour days in the cold, wet mud searching for disaster victims, as was the case of Booter in the 2014 Oso, Washington landslide.

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Booter, a 4-year old black lab with a large, jovial smile, and his handler John Dean of Arizona Search Dogs, were one subset of the superpower team of first responders that deployed to the massive landslide that took place outside of Oso, Washington in March 2014. As part of the recovery effort, John and Booter formed a critical unit whose search efforts led him over the mass of mud, rock, and broken trees that covered over a square mile and buried the small town. Over the course of 18 grueling days, Booter worked alongside police officers, firefighters, community members and other rescue personnel to help bring answers to the Oso community. Though this kind of success isn’t determined by hard work or raw ability alone, it starts with a foundation of trust and cohesion built through years of shared experience.

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When John and Booter arrive at the scene of a disaster like the one in Oso, they don’t take long to find a familiar rhythm. One can tell by observing their unspoken communication that they’ve spent thousands of hours training together. But despite all of the elite skill these two exhibit, the most important factor in any situation is the bond they share. Through many challenges John and Booter have come to count on one another, and it is their mutual commitment that enables such effectiveness in dire situations.

Much like the experiences that have brought John and Booter together, the Oso landslide proved to have the same effect on the residents of the small mountain town. For much of the recovery effort John and Booter worked alongside many family members and friends of the missing victims. While Booter’s calm focus and friendly demeanor certainly helped bolster a sense of hope amidst the group, perhaps there was no better inspiration for unconditional selflessness than that of the search dog on his mission to find people in trouble. This common purpose between John and Booter permeated the search team, and in the face of uncertainty, the courageous residents of Oso came together to help one another recover and heal.

As author Rebecca Solnit notes in her book A Paradise Built in Hell, “Disasters are not merely destructive, they are extraordinarily generative.” Stories like the Oso landslide will undoubtedly recount the tragic loss of life and upending of a tiny community, but they can also teach us that no disaster is insurmountable if we join hands (and paws) and face it together.

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Arizona Search Dogs is an Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) squad that trains K-9s on location detection, rescue (extrication) and initial medical stabilization of victims trapped in confined spaces. FEMA deploys units like the AZ Search Dogs to natural disasters. Learn more about their organization and support their mission to help heroes like Booter protect our communities.

Superpower Dogs is a 3D giant screen movie about real life working dogs who save lives, lift spirits and make our world a better place. We aim to raise awareness for the working dog community and support the next generation of canine heroes. Discover more at superpowerdogs.com and join the adventure at @superpowerdogs.