Vermont disaster relief K-9 team nationally certified

Published: Jan. 8, 2021 at 8:59 AM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - An urban search and rescue task force that trains in Vermont is now ready to serve all over the country.

They’re called Vermont Task Force 1 and inside that unit is an even smaller team. The K-9 unit is made up of four people and their highly trained dogs that are capable of doing tasks humans aren’t made for. The dogs have a very specific job to do. When a disaster strikes, whether it be a singular house fire with structural damage, or a parking garage hit by an earthquake, they are trained to seek.

“People can be entrapped in houses that we can’t physically go into initially, that’s where these dogs really shine,” said Emily Fitzpatrick, the K-9 Coordinator for Task Force 1. She says they aren’t only benefiting Vermonters. Three of the K-9s are nationally certified as of this year to respond to disasters all over the country. “Having these dogs enables us as a team to be activated more and go out to different events.”

But the team is only four-years-old, so responses have been minimal. Although they never wish for disaster to hit, they will be ready when it does and the unit is called on. “We train once a week, as a team,” said Tyler Cootware, K-9 Sniper’s handler. The two are the newest members of the team.

Sniper is a product of the Penn Vet Program in Pennsylvania, where he was trained from 8-weeks-old for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. It’s intense for the handler, too. “That two weeks was a lot, mostly for me,” said Cootware.

He had to learn everything from Sniper’s commands, to body language while working, to patience. But now that they work as a unit, he says the returns for the hard work are invaluable. “It can take humans 2-3 hours to clear a pile of rubble properly, but it takes these dogs just minutes,” said Cootware.

And although Task Force 1 says they are more likely to be called on nationally than here in Vermont, Cootware says small or large disasters are exactly what they train for. “Great knowing that we have a very valuable asset that we can deploy at any moment and that we are truly ready,” he said.

The in-state search certification is a combination of basic skills and a simple search problem. But Fitzpatrick says the national test requires travel and a much harder test than the in-state. “It’s just two very complex search problems. There are distractions, like human remains on the pile. You know, day-old cheeseburger, clothing, so they can proof the dogs to know, yup, the dog is alerting on live human scent and not just your sweatshirt that you left in the pile for two days,” said Fitzpatrick.

To be nationally certified, the dogs and handlers had to go to Maryland for the certification test and one of their dogs had to go to Kansas. Cootware says one of the most interesting parts of these dogs is that they want to work. They see the searching part as a big game and their goal to find the scent they are supposed to. But as much as they love working, he also says they do love to go home and just be a dog as well.

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