- Julia Shipley
- Avery Schneider and Birdy
When Avery Schneider and her 21-month-old American Labrador retriever, Birdy, go to work, they often head for a big pile of rubble deep inside the Vermont National Guard's Camp Johnson base in Colchester. The pile looks as if a medium-size box store exploded or a parking garage collapsed: Think smashed cars, broken concrete walls, storage containers stacked like shoeboxes. Created for Vigilant Guard — the 10-day emergency-response exercise held in July 2016 — the chaos was carefully engineered to simulate a sudden disaster. As such, it contains elements of an urban catastrophe, including pockets within the debris where victims might be trapped.
That's why the rubble pile is a great place to train a "live-find" search-and-rescue dog.
Schneider is a K-9 handler for the Vermont Task Force 1 (VT-TF1) — the state's urban search-and-rescue team trained by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Since the rubble site was installed at Camp Johnson, she has brought Birdy to it a dozen times to practice "scent work." That is, Birdy is being trained to find people buried alive in a disaster site.
Schneider, 20, and Emily Fitzpatrick, 27, are two of the four K-9 handlers on VT-TF1. Its 90 members statewide also include doctors, firefighters, structural engineers, police and emergency medical technicians. The force was initiated in 2002 to augment local emergency services in response to major natural or manmade disasters such as hurricanes, floods, conflagrations, explosions, earthquakes or other events of mass destruction. The primary mission of VT-TF1 is to "provide advanced technical search and rescue capabilities to retrieve victims trapped or entombed in structurally damaged buildings," according to the Vermont Department of Public Safety website.
As part of the search team, Schneider and Fitzpatrick are preparing their dogs to pass rigorous national certification in urban search and rescue (both have already been certified at the state level). The women frequently train their canines together. Last week, this reporter joined them at Camp Johnson.
Inside Schneider's vehicle, Birdy waited in her crate next to bins containing leashes, collars, harnesses, food, a cooling fan, water, bug spray and, most importantly, a blue rubber Kong ball on a tether — Birdy's favorite toy. Fitzpatrick's dog, Remi, a 14-month-old black Lab, is Birdy's sister from a different litter. Both dogs practice elements of live-find work three to four times per week.
Schneider and Fitzpatrick both wore navy-blue shirts emblazoned with their last names, matching pants, rugged boots, and helmets outfitted with earplugs and headlamps. The dogs wore only their collars.
Before letting her canine out of the truck, Schneider covered the dog crate with a towel so that Birdy couldn't cheat by watching Fitzpatrick hide in the rubble pile carrying the blue ball.
Schneider then approached the pile carrying a small bottle of baby powder, which she squeezed. She watched how the puff of powder fell, which conveyed the direction of the wind and thus how Birdy would pick up on the airborne scent of a living human hidden in the rubble — in this case, Fitzpatrick.
Finally, she fetched Birdy from her crate, asking, "Ready to go to work?"
Schneider has been training Birdy since the dog was eight weeks old, preparing her for everything the live-find job entails: scrambling up treacherous terrain, finding the scent of living humans, following the scent to its point of greatest concentration and, finally, alerting the handler with a series of loud, confident barks.
While cadaver dogs can help locate the remains of victims, live-find dogs detect breathing — but possibly unconscious — people hidden under rubble.
Michael Cannon, coordinator of Vermont's urban search-and-rescue program, says the force as a whole has been deployed a dozen times over the past several years. Of those instances, the K-9 unit has been activated or put on standby at least three times. Those situations included the Amtrak passenger train derailment in Northfield in October 2015, an exploded home in Guilford in July 2016, and, just last month, a house explosion in Bradford.
Schneider unsnapped Birdy's leash and kissed her dog on the head. Then she stood back as Birdy bounded off to "work" the pile.
The Lab briskly loped up and down the slabs and chunks of concrete. To prepare Birdy to be nimble and fearless over coarse terrain, Schneider has routinely exposed the dog to "a ton of uncomfortable circumstances — uneven, unstable, rough surfaces," she explained. For example, Birdy went through a period of eating her kibble while standing on chicken wire. This mix of intense discomfort and the reward of food — and, increasingly, play — is the core of Schneider's work with Birdy, so that she has the stamina and drive to find victims in potentially treacherous places.
On the back portion of the rubble pile, Birdy approached a piece of plywood abutting a concrete ledge. Sensing the presence of Fitzpatrick's natural human odor, Birdy began to whine urgently, then issued several authoritative barks. Birdy had successfully found her "victim," who was concealed in a hole beneath the plywood. In response, Fitzpatrick rewarded Birdy's discovery by offering her the treasured blue ball and playing a brief bout of tug of war.
Schneider has deliberately cultivated extra significance for the ball so that Birdy exerts her best effort, knowing that if she finds a victim, she gets to play with her favorite thing. "Right now, if she had to choose between food and that ball," Schneider said, "she'd choose the ball." And Birdy's highly desired toy is only available when it's time to work.
Schneider believes that toy-based reward is important, because she knows it's likely that food could be found in any rubble pile. "If you have a dog that works for food, it might not work that hard," she explained. But no disaster scene is going to have that blue ball.
According to FEMA's 85-page Canine Search Team Certification Evaluation Handbook, Schneider and Birdy need to perform decisively well in five categories: obedience, bark indication, direction and control, agility, and rubble site features. As part of this test, human and canine have 20 minutes to search for victims in an unfamiliar rubble pile, which must "attain a minimum average height of 10 feet and consist of an area of 5,000 to 8,000 square feet ... predominantly of concrete or a mixture of materials common to disaster sites."
Schneider seems preternaturally gifted and focused given her age — last summer, at age 19, she was the youngest rescue personnel in the Vigilant Guard exercise. Perhaps it's because she's been training herself for a role as a handler since she was a child.
She grew up on a farm near Cooperstown, N.Y., where her parents practiced agility training with their dogs. When Schneider was 16, she prepared two goats — a Nigerian Dwarf and an Oberhasli — for a live performance in a local opera production. She potty-trained the animals and monitored when they ate, drank and would need to relieve themselves in order to avoid onstage accidents. Additionally, she acclimated the goats to loud noises, bright lights and other people.
Schneider left high school early for pre-veterinarian training at the State University of New York at Cobleskill and supplemented her studies by riding along on veterinary calls with assistant professor Lynn Geoffroy. Another professor introduced Schneider to working with canines and inspired her to intern at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. From there, she transferred to Sterling College in Craftsbury Common and simultaneously joined the town volunteer fire department.
Schneider was recruited to join VT-TF1 in 2015 when Cannon observed her abilities with Birdy at a school for fire and rescue services in Newport.
Last week at the Camp Johnson rubble pile, this reporter waited uncomfortably in a blue barrel for Remi to detect her, and the seriousness of the dog's work became profoundly apparent. What if someone were pinned under too much rubble, unable to yell, perhaps knocked unconscious? At a disaster site, one's only chance of survival might depend on a dog with a good nose, trained by a dedicated handler.
After five minutes, Remi's sniffing became audible. She began whimpering and then barking sharply (aka "making an alert"). Then, as instructed, this reporter offered Remi's favorite toy, a brown tug on a tether, as the reward for her find.
Schneider reiterated that her live-find canine training is based on linking the uncomfortable, stressful "find" work with the experience of joyful play. Given the potential severity of the situations for which she and Fitzpatrick prepare their dogs, the reward-based aspect is crucial.
Knowing that she can save someone's life makes the work worthwhile for Schneider; for the dogs, it's the thrill of obtaining their toys. "We're training them to get what they want if they try hard enough," she said.
Though the Camp Johnson site is one of the state's optimal places for K-9 live-find training, Schneider and Fitzpatrick also train at DuBois Construction in Middlesex, the Vermont Police Academy in Pittsford, Colchester Technical Rescue and at any vacant playground where dogs are allowed.
"Yeah," said Fitzpatrick. "You should see Birdy go down the slide."