SINGAPORE - When First Warrant Officer Dan Qiong of the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) heads overseas for search and rescue missions, she has with her a canine colleague.
While SCDF officers in the Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (Dart) are well known, what is less known are the 14 dogs in the search platoon that are trained to work alongside them.
Since 1999, SCDF's search dogs have joined nine Operation Lionheart missions for earthquake, tsunami, bush fire and flood relief efforts.
Some of the dogs were also deployed to a Circle Line construction site in Nicoll Highway when it collapsed in 2004, killing four people.
The Straits Times was given a preview of how the dogs are trained during SCDF's height rescue exercise last Tuesday (Sept 21).
Strapped to his harness, Jack, a black labrador from Britain, was lifted five storeys together with his handler, search specialist Dan, on a skate block system.
A skate block acts like a pulley system that is anchored to the ground and the building where two ropes are looped over wheels to make it easier to lift rescuers.
The dogs are trained to ascend and descend on the rope system in rescues where they have no other way to reach casualties, trapped, for instance, on the upper floors of a collapsed building.
The dogs ascend with their handler, and alone, once they are confident enough.
Faster than humans and with a keener sense of smell, the dogs are also trained to sniff out life and speed up searches.
Upon sniffing out a human scent, they would bark in the direction of the scent to signal to Dart members to search the rubble with equipment.
"Jack is a very good search dog, easy to train. It took me less than six months to train him," said 1WO Dan, who has handled three dogs in her 13 years with the search platoon.
"But he's scared of heights, so I have to pat and comfort him when we ascend."
She said handlers build a bond with their dogs by feeding, bathing, grooming and taking care of them when they are sick or injured.
Search specialists are designated a dog that they work with throughout its service, and they may handle other dogs as well.
Instead of treats, the dogs are rewarded with a tennis ball during their training as it can be hard to find food in earthquake-hit zones, and the rescue team does not want its dogs looking for food instead of victims, 1WO Dan said.
When asked if she thinks of Jack as her friend, she said lines have to be drawn so that Jack does not become just a pet dog to her.
"When we're relaxed, he is my friend. But when it comes to work, he has to listen to me."
Professional boundaries aside, many SCDF officers end up adopting their dogs after the canines retire.