Canadian canines volunteer in Haiti

Rebecca Dube

From Monday's Globe and Mail

When the news hit that a devastating earthquake had hit Haiti, Silvie Montier rushed to help. And so did her dog.

Three days after the quake, Ms. Montier, a founding member of the Edmonton-based Canadian Search and Disaster Dogs Association, and her Laekenois Belgian Shepherd, Cramique, boarded a plane with three other dogs and their handlers to look for survivors in the rubble.

“The earthquake itself was one of the worst I have ever seen,” said Ms. Montier, who has volunteered with her dogs in disaster areas around the world (her day job is as a lawyer for a nurses' union). “Typically when there are bodies they are picked up soon after; here they were staying there on the side of the road for days. It was really very bad.”

Her dog had to jump over dead bodies in some cases to search for live people. That, combined with the heat and the ever-present dust, made Haiti a tough assignment. Cramique is trained to give an alert when he finds a dead body, and to bark when he smells a live one. By the second day, Ms. Montier said, the dogs stopped alerting to cadavers; there were simply too many of them.

There were success stories, though. Ms. Montier and Cramique found a man in his 50s buried in the rubble of a collapsed house. The rest of his family had died in the earthquake, but thanks to Cramique, after four days trapped in the rubble he was saved. Ms. Montier did not get to talk to the man – once her dog smells a person, she and the dog back off and let the rescue crews with heavy equipment extricate the victim – but she did hear from many other grateful Haitians.

Over three days in Haiti helping with rescue effort, the team of four dogs found a total of six survivors.

“I found the Haitian people very good to us,” Ms. Montier said. “They certainly love Canadians. I had a young man said to me, ‘Oh, you're Canadian, all Canadians are my family, I will help you.' ”

Ms. Montier got her first taste of search and rescue dogs' capabilities as a child growing up in war-torn Algeria, where her father was a doctor with the French army. One day, her sister wandered away on the army base where they lived, and their family dog – another Belgian Shepherd – found her at the bottom of a bomb crater. Ms. Montier was impressed, and hooked.

She soon trained the dog to find her pet turtle wherever she hid it in the yard.

Though Ms. Montier is loyal to Belgian Shepherds, she said any kind of dog can work in search and rescue. Some of the best are mutts rescued from animal shelters. There are a half-dozen search-and-rescue dog organizations in Canada, with dozens of dogs that can search for people lost in wilderness, avalanches, bomb sites and even underwater. The team Ms. Montier took to Haiti included a yellow lab, a Springer spaniel and a mixed breed.

“Any dog who loves to play ball or loves to tug” has potential, Ms. Montier said. In training, when dogs find a live person they get to play with their toy. So their barking when they find a victim in the rubble may sound like, “I found a person, come and save them!” but actually they're saying, “I found a person, give me my toy already!”

“It's a game for the dog,” Ms. Montier said. It usually takes about two years to fully train a search-and-rescue dog, she said, though training is an ongoing process. Dogs and their handlers must be re-certified every one to three years. When she and Cramique returned to Canada from Haiti, they were both exhausted – all the dogs slept through the entire flight home, she said (as service dogs, they are allowed to travel in the passenger compartment). The next day, she and Cramique were doing training exercises again.

“Training is a happy game,” Ms. Montier said. “Cramique loves to work. If he doesn't work he gets very bored and very destructive.”

Ms. Montier said she would love to see more dogs trained for search and rescue in Canada, and more utilization of the search dogs here. In Haiti, she said, there were 175 search dogs on the ground, and her team were the only dogs from Canada.

“It's really a pity,” she said. “When we arrived, we could have used an extra hundred dogs.”

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