COLUMBIA — When Mary Roy saw a picture of a female Australian cattle dog online, the intense look in its eyes drew her in immediately.
"I knew she was perfect," Roy said.
The dog, named Kish, wasn't just perfect for Roy, but also for her purpose: to find a dog to train as a search dog for Missouri Task Force 1.
Not just any dog can be trained for the job. In order for a search dog to be successful, it needs to have a certain temperament and drive, K9 specialist Erin Venable said.
Saturday morning put Kish's personality to the test as she and a yellow lab, Noah, underwent a Foundation Skills Assessment, one step before certification as a Task Force search dog. Noah and his handler, Mark Schroeder, traveled from Nebraska to take part in the assessment.
Although it's the dogs that do most of the work during the assessment, one of the most important elements is the relationship between the dogs and their handlers, Venable said.
"It all boils down to trust," Venable said. "The dog trusts the handler to be in charge of its safety, and the handler trusts the dog to do the job."
How testing works
A Foundation Skills Assessment consists of nine tests, which assess a dog's obedience, control and agility.
"The FSA is designed to develop skills to allow the dogs to be better search machines," Venable said. "They have to be obedient because people's lives depend on it."
For the assessment, all dogs participate in a series of nine tests, measuring abilities such as the dog's agility and patience, and the dog's ability to be approached, to be around other dogs and to respond to its handlers and other humans.
The final test is the most challenging and most realistic, as the dogs have to find a buried "victim" in a large pile of scrap metal, buses, cars and concrete slabs from bridge replacements and other construction projects. The dogs have 15 minutes to find the victim and pinpoint the exact location of the victim to their handlers.
How Kish and Noah did
Kish passed each of the first eight assessment tasks, some with impressive marks, except she was not able to pinpoint where the victim was in the last test because she was too concerned about where Roy was. The rubble test is one of the most important of the nine, so she failed the assessment as a whole.
"FEMA has the most stringent testing program in the nation, more than any other canine training program," Venable said. "It's not an easy test to pass."
Once a dog passes the assessment, it needs to go through a Certification Evaluation, which is offered in various locations five or six times each year.
"Kish and I will stick with it until they kick us off," Roy said.
Noah also failed his assessment, unable to pass the long-down stay and a voice-controlled tests. Schroeder was able to show Noah what he did wrong in the voice-controlled test and correct it.
"You never want to stop and end on a negative note with these dogs," Venable said. "You always have to reward their effort even if they fail."
The importance of search dogs
Kish's and Noah's inability to pass the assessment doesn't affect Missouri Task Force 1 much because the agency is currently not in need of another dog.
A maximum of 12 dogs is allowed per Task Force unit, and Missouri Task Force 1 has nine spots filled, said Doug Westhoff, Boone County Fire Protection District assistant chief and Missouri Task Force 1 leader.
The Task Force takes a minimum of four search dogs on each mission, so it is important for Task Forces to always have more than four dogs available, said Westhoff.
Venable said having dogs on a mission is crucial because of how fast they can clear buildings or locate a victim in comparison to the time it would take the Task Force members themselves.
"We're taking dogs' natural instincts and using them in a way that we can benefit others," she said. "It's absolutely amazing what they can do for us."
Supervising editor is Simina Mistreanu.