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When Disaster Strikes, This K-9 Search-and-Rescue Team Is Already Packed



Every so often, Elizabeth Chaney and her work partner, Ventoux, will engage in a professional tug of war. For Ventoux, a 6-year-old Belgian Malinois search-and-rescue dog, the game is a reward for a job well done.

“In training you always have a reward item to keep the dog’s motivation up. His reward is a few minutes of play, which he loves,” Ms. Chaney says.

The pair are members of the K-9 unit of Virginia Task Force 1, part of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. “We train for large-scale disasters in urban settings. An earthquake, a bombing, a hurricane—basically, if there’s a lot of destruction, we will be deployed,” says Ms. Chaney, 43, a dog trainer who’s been with the task force for more than a decade.

When an emergency call comes in, Ms. Chaney and her dog have three hours to report for duty. She always has three bags packed and ready to go: a Wolfpack Gear backpack and two red duffels.

Collapsible water bowls, little plastic bags, extra leashes and collars can be found in every piece of luggage. “Poop bags are very important. You don’t want to be disrespectful,” Ms. Chaney says. She carries several replicas of Ventoux’s reward item, the tug.

She keeps travel-size bottles of baby powder in every coat pocket and zipper compartment. The handlers shake out baby powder at the search site to test wind direction so they know where to position the dogs to start sniffing. She also carries bright orange tape, which the team uses to flag areas of interest or indicate that a building has already been searched.

In April, Ms. Chaney, Ventoux and the rest of the team spent several weeks in Nepal after the earthquakes. Ventoux is trained for “live find,” meaning his job is to sniff out survivors trapped under rubble, even if they’re unconscious. (Ms. Chaney also has a German shepherd, Hugo, trained to find human remains.) It was Ventoux’s first international trip.

In recent years the task force has deployed to Japan and Haiti, after severe earthquakes hit metro areas; to Washington state after a mudslide buried the town of Oso; and to New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy.

Ms. Chaney carries a harness for when the pair have to be lifted or lowered from a helicopter, and muzzles because some countries require them.

Both she and Ventoux have special vests that they wear when traveling, with interchangeable Velcro identification patches: Federal Emergency Management Agency patches for domestic deployments and USAID patches for working abroad.

When they fly commercial, Ventoux is on the floor at her feet. On a military transport plane, he’s in his crate, Ms. Chaney buckled in beside him. She slips him a few dog treats during takeoff and landing, so he has something to swallow to help his ears equalize and keep them from hurting.

In her Wolfpack, she is required to have enough gear for human and dog to last 48 hours in the field. That means about 12 cups of dry dog food; a canine electrolyte replacement to keep Ventoux hydrated while he’s working; and plenty of treats, both dog and human. In Ms. Chaney’s case, it is beef jerky, chocolate and chewing gum. She feeds Ventoux healthy snacks like goat’s milk, yogurt, carrots and apples when she can.

During the deployment in Nepal, six handlers and their dogs shared a tent. The dogs slept in crates next to their owners’ cots.

Ms. Chaney’s search outfit includes leather work gloves, steel-toed boots, a helmet and occasionally knee and elbow pads, for searching cramped spaces.

Ventoux works “naked,” Ms. Chaney says. “A collar could get caught on a piece of rebar. And booties inhibit the dog from feeling and grabbing and spreading their toes on unstable surfaces like rubble.”

When she isn’t on a search mission, Ms. Chaney runs Perfect Pet Resort in Lothian, Md., offering pet boarding, grooming and training on her 14-acre property. She grew up in a family of animal lovers with dogs, cats, horses and chickens. After college, she started competing in the canine sport of Schutzhund, which she describes as a triathlon for dogs. On the circuit, she met handlers from the search-and-rescue task force. She joined in 2003 with her dog at the time, a German shepherd named Harpo.

Ms. Chaney got Ventoux when he was 2 years old and says it took just four months to train him to become a search dog. The pair still do training exercises four times a week. “He loves his work. He lives for it. He’s a complete joy,” she says.

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