Turning cute and cuddly pups into mission-ready rescue dogs in Malaysia

Hero rescue dogs aren’t born, they're trained, over years and years

Multiple rescue dogs with their handlers dressed in blue uniform and yellow helmets
Search and Rescue (SAR) Dogs Malaysia members and their doggos geared up and ready to go. (Photo: Search and Rescue (SAR) Dogs Malaysia)

By Jeannette Goon

KUALA LUMPUR — Thirty-one lives lost. So much heartache and devastation. Yet heroes emerged in the form of specially-trained rescue dogs amid the tragedy of the Batang Kali landslide.

These mutts joined over 700 personnel from five main government agencies, including the Malaysian Civil Defence Force (APM), in search and rescue efforts following the landslide at a campsite on Father’s Organic Farm on 16 December, 2022.

Day after day, through mud, slush and rain, even through exhaustion, Blake, Grouse, Lady and their pals worked to locate survivors. And their efforts didn’t go unnoticed, with the four-legged wonders becoming both stars on social media and eventually receiving commendations from the government.

But while most Malaysians were full of praise for the good boys and girls, what most were unaware of is how these cute and cuddly rescuers have trained for years for just one purpose — to save human lives.

Indeed, Search and Rescue (SAR) Dogs Malaysia, which took part in the efforts in Batang Kali as part of its strategic partnership with APM, explains that for many of the dogs, the journey began as pups.

No walk in the park

Training programmes to get SAR canines mission-ready begin when a dog is young, usually between the ages of three months to a year.

SAR Dogs Malaysia is a member of and operates following the standards of the International Search and Rescue Dog Organisation (IRO), which is a partner of the UN International Search and Rescue Advisory Group.

And according to the group's exco member and mission lead Mohammad Mukhzani, it’s no walk in the park for both dogs and trainers. It typically takes two to three years to prepare dogs for the IRO examination, with training sessions conducted multiple times a week.

A man in white and blue uniform directing a black search and rescue dog at work
A Search and Rescue (SAR) Dogs Malaysia member ready to spring into action with his partner pooch (Photo: Search and Rescue (SAR) Dogs Malaysia)

“We have a training committee that assesses each dog based on its personality, and devises training programmes for that specific dog. We train the dog that is in front of us. A method may work on one dog, but may not be as effective for another,” said Mohammad.

But even though training methods may differ from dog to dog, the goal is always the same i.e. to get canines ready to find lost and missing persons.

The right dog for the right job

IRO president Alois Balog explained that some of the most important traits that determine a dog’s aptitude for search and rescue are curiosity, courage, stamina, mobility, and a strong natural instinct for food and play.

A man in a vest training a rescue dog in an open field
International Search and Rescue Dog Organisation (IRO) President Alois Balog in a training session with a search and rescue dog. (Photo: International Search and Rescue Dog Organisation)

Depending on what type of missions the dog is expected to go on, physical capabilities may also be a factor.

“When choosing a dog, the handler has to make sure that the dog's physique is suited for mastering the anticipated demands. Parameters such as climate zone and area of deployment also play an important role in the decision,” he said.

He offers an example to illustrate the point:

“The Newfoundland is a born swimmer and is perfectly suited for water rescue. But on land, it is not exactly agile and his thick coat does not make it an ideal candidate for search missions in warm climates.”

Balog added that while many SAR teams choose pedigree and purebred dogs for training, this is not due to a difference in performance, compared to mixed breeds. Rather, it is simply because certain fundamental characteristics — such as good socialisation, disposition for SAR work, and good health — can be assumed or verified in responsible breeding.

This, indeed, is why the rescue dogs of Batang Kali comprised English Springer Spaniels and Labrador Retrievers.

A brown rescue dog training with its handler during a training session
NGOs such as SAR Dogs Malaysia and IRO rely on donations to support the cost of dog training equipment and protective gear. (Photo: Search and Rescue (SAR) Dogs Malaysia)

Even, so Balog noted that the breed isn't as important as a dog’s drive and even, its love for play.

“It is important that the dog enjoys working and can be motivated by food or toys.

“The dog should be approachable, obedient, and friendly towards both people and other dogs. Furthermore, a search and rescue dog must be able to block out loud noises or other disturbances,” he said.

A partnership of dog and man

Scent, however, is a dog’s primary way of “viewing” the world, and is what makes canines especially valuable on SAR missions.

Dogs have between 125-300 million olfactory cells, which makes their sense of smell far superior to humans, who have only 5-6 million. On top of that, one-third of a dog’s brain is allocated for interpreting odours, compared to just 5 per cent in humans.

Multiple search and rescue dogs with their handlers
After years of training together SAR dogs form a working bond with their handlers – it’s a partnership! (Photo: Search and Rescue (SAR) Dogs Malaysia)

Training, of course, is not the be-all and end-all. In fact, Balog explained that for SAR dogs to perform well, a dog handler ought to keep an eye on their dog’s constitution “not only during an operation, but over its entire lifetime”.

“To prevent cardiovascular problems during operations, it is important that dogs undergo regular endurance training in addition to their search work,” he noted, adding that like humans, a dog’s fitness level can be increased.

“To keep the dog fit, a balanced diet and regular veterinary checks are also essential.”

Handlers need to also pay special attention to temperature effects on their furry charges to prevent overheating or hypothermia. Even superheroes need rest.

After all, a healthy dog and well-cared-for doggo is that much more able to perform its duties, rise to challenges and importantly, save lives.

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