After training for nearly a year on how to find disaster survivors, four dogs ran to greet their new owners earlier this month and were greeted by smiles and even some tears.
The National Search Dog Foundation, based in Ojai, works to train shelter dogs to respond in the most dire of situations and to save lives.
First responders come from all over the country to train and to be paired with trained dogs that will live with them and be deployed to disasters as they happen.
Dogs from the NSDF have been deployed to disaster areas including those affected by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake, where they are trained to help their first-responder owners find survivors.
Earlier this month, four Utah firefighters were paired with dogs that had been training for almost a year at the organization's National Training Center in Santa Paula. Click here to watch the videos of the owners meeting their dogs for the first time.
Cole, Decker, Tanner and Taylor had been in training for the better part of 2013 and were paired with first responders Roxanne Bauman, Tracy Christensen, Trevor Lawrence and Maddie Warner.
The first responders had been attending task force trainings for several months in preparation for the two-week handlers course at the training center.
First responders contact the group and are trained by the organization.
"There are other people who sell search dogs," Janet Reineck of the NSDF told Noozhawk on Monday. "We get rescue dogs and we give them away, and the program is ongoing training."
For the dogs, it's a particularly difficult assignment to be deployed to a disaster area. That's because unlike a bomb or drug dog, these dogs are off-leash during their assignments, and have to be directed by their owners from far away with hand signals or whistles, Reineck said.
While a drug sniffing dog can be trained, search dogs can take up 10 months to train.
"It is a needle in a haystack to find these dogs," she said.
The dogs also must have intense focus — if they find someone buried alive, they must stay with that person until the first responder comes to that person's aid.
"It's victim loyalty; once they find something, nothing will tear them away," she said. "They can't have any distractions."
They are FEMA test certified, which Reineck compared to passing the bar. Dogs have to find several victims in a large field of rubble and if they "false alert" — i.e., stop and explore a planted scent of chicken, food or even a cadaver scent — they are disqualified.
The trainers are working to match the dogs with first responders, who will own the dogs for the rest of their lives.
"The dog is with you all the time," she said. "You don't play with this dog, you play with a meaning."
To find out more about the organization or donate, visit their website by clicking here.