Meet the search dog who can find people trapped in disaster zones

Imagine you are caught up in a terrible disaster.

Buried under rubble, or caught in a vehicle, there is no light, no air flow and you don’t know if anyone can hear you.

You start to wonder how many people have been caught in the same incident as you, and if rescuers will be able to find you before it is too late.

You start to wonder how rescue teams will be able to tell the difference between people that it is too late for and those who might have a chance to survive.

That is where Cara, and many other dogs like her, come in.

Meet Cara

Cara is a six year old Belgian Malinois who works with her handler as an urban search and rescue dog.

Like other rescue dogs, she is trained to sniff out and locate people who have been caught up in a disaster, or who are lost.

What sets Cara apart is that she focuses on more hectic urban scenes or disaster sites, rather than rural searches.

Building collapses, train crashes, earthquake aftermath, even terrorist attacks. She can do it all.

Cara, a Beligian Malinois, sits on top of a large structure covered in white plastic wrap.
Cara experiences different textures and terrain during her training (Picture: Aaron Crowley/Metro.co.uk)

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Mick Atwood is Cara’s handler and partner. He has been a firefighter for over 20 years and currently works with the technical rescue unit.

He says: ‘Following 911, the country looked at our capabilities to cope with large scale incidents. We are on call pretty much 24/7/365.

‘We can be deployed to large scale incidents anywhere within the UK.’

Cara is incredibly skilled but she is also incredibly unusual. Traditionally, Collies, spaniels and labradors are used as scent dogs, while shepherding breeds such as Belgian Malinois are used as general purpose dogs.

Mick says: ‘The qualities that she has, and the training we’ve been through, she really has proved herself as an outstanding service dog, she’s unbelievable.

She’s a bit fiery at times. But on the whole, you know, all the disciplines that we collect, she is stunning.’

Cara stands inside a crate in the purpose built training rig at the fire station, she looks up at her owner waiting for instruction
The fire station that Cara is based at comes with a training rig (Picture: Aaron Crowley/Metro.co.uk)

Cara’s story

Despite their incredible bond, she has only been paired with Mick since January 2018.

Before they were brought together she worked with another handler, but that sadly did not work out. She was placed into a rescue centre and that is when she found her way to Mick.

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The first few months of this partnership were spent learning about each other and figuring out Cara’s personality, followed by six months of training to get Cara up to standard. The rest is history.

Mick spends more time with her than he does with anybody else. He says: ‘She comes home with me, she lives with me, at home in the house. She comes to work with me.

‘So it’s pretty much 24/7. When we come to work, she sleeps here with us, and she’ll be with me, you know, for as long as she lives really. Even when she retires.’

What does Cara do?

Cara’s role in the technical rescue unit and the urban search and rescue team is to search for life amid wreckage and disaster. But how does she do that?

Mick says: ‘Cara is trying to search for life. She’s what we call a live scenting search dog. And we’ve trained her so she will indicate by barking at people within an incident that are alive.’

She has been trained to recognise the scent of both a living person and a cadaver, or dead person. She will then positively signal (bark) when she identifies the scent of a surviving human.

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That means Mick and his team can get to work and, hopefully, save a life.

As with every dog we have met on this series , the bond between hound and handler is vital, and Mick has nothing short of endless love and admiration for Cara: ‘I always say she never ceases to amaze me, her boldness and her ability to work things out.

‘She’s so bright, normally what I ask is what I get, which astonishes me all the time.

‘Every day, we get these wondrous moments where you can’t believe what she’s just done.’

Cara the search and rescue dog
Cara has now been put forward for the International Search and Rescue Team (Picture: Aaron Crowley/Metro.co.uk)

Happy dog, healthy dog

After the terrorist attack on 9/11, dogs were used to search the area where the Twin Towers fell.

The search and rescue dogs reportedly found so few survivors and so many dead bodies, that they became depressed.

Mick explains that he needs to work with Cara to make sure she isn’t emotionally affected by the work.

He says: ‘The most important thing to Cara in her life is a ball. So after a positive find I have to try and get over to her.

‘But if we were searching all day, and didn’t have a find, very quickly, the dogs levels of enthusiasm are going to decline.’

Why do they do that? When dogs kick after going to the bathroom, they are using the scent glands on their paws to further mark their territory.

If this is the case, Mick and the team have to get a little creative to cheer up their sniffing superstar.

He adds: ‘It’s about me recognising, as a handler, that we need to reward.

‘That might be something as simple as hiding somebody just around the corner and I put her on a search, just the same, and then bang, she gets a reward.

‘Then she realises that yeah, there is still play out there. So then we can put it back to search.’

The future

In the future, Mick hopes to move beyond the West Midlands, as he is applying to be a part of the International Search and Rescue Team.

The team deploys to incidents such as earthquakes, tsunamis and big structural collapses, all over the world.

If Mick and Cara’s application is successful they could be deployed anywhere at a moment’s notice.

Mick describes it is ‘a career defining moment.’

He adds: ‘I’m exposed to things now with Cara that generally you don’t get exposed to even within the fire service.

‘So, for me after serving quite a long time, it’s been a real plus point that I can finish off my career hopefully in the same job and doing what we’re doing now.’

Yummy! Dogs have about 1,700 taste buds. Humans have approximately 9,000 and cats have around 473.

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