Rescued dogs become the rescuers in Japanese earthquake aftermath

Returning the Favor, published in Dogs in Review May 2011

On March 11, 2011 a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of Japan, creating a tsunami that caused tremendous destruction in northern regions. Whole villages were wiped out. Video of the wave’s power as it rushed ashore showed vehicles, houses and even ships tossed about like toys. There was no question that the loss of life would be severe and there would be many people trapped in the debris.

Almost immediately after news of the quake reached the US, two search-and-rescue teams with specially trained FEMA-certified search-and-rescue dogs were put on alert. The following day, they left for Japan, accompanied by a second team from Virginia and about 45 tons of equipment.

One of the groups activated was CA Task Force 2, based in Los Angeles County. This team of 72 men and women is quite experienced, having been deployed to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, and Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. The team also includes six dogs from the National Search Dog Foundation, a not-for-profit group that provides and trains the dogs at no cost to first responders, primarily firemen, throughout the US.

The two teams arrived at the Misawa Air Base in Northern Japan. After clearing immigration, the teams and dogs received their assignment later that day, with both task forces assigned to the Ofunato City area on the northeast coast of Japan, which had not yet been searched for survivors.

The city was located 140 kilometers from the severely damaged nuclear power plants, but the team was always aware of any radiation concerns. SDF Executive Director Debra Tosch explained that as the dogs work each site, “…rescue personnel will be awaiting a ‘BARK ALERT’ from the dogs, letting them know there is someone alive, possibly unconscious, in need of rescue. Everything the teams have learned during their intensive training will be put to use in saving lives.”

The two task forces spent several days searching the wreckage of Ofunato City. Handler Eric Gray reported that he always thought that his SDF-trained search dog was talented, but he had seen him do things in Japan that impressed him more than he ever imagined.

Because of the dogs’ training and reliability, each area that they searched did not need to be checked again for survivors, thus saving valuable resources for new searches rather than duplicating a search already completed. Codes spray-painted on each building indicated the team that had been there, the time they entered and exited the building, any hazards other personnel needed to be aware of and if survivors or deceased were found.

By the third day after the quake, the teams continued searching despite difficult weather conditions including rain and snow. A report from the scene describes what was happening:

“It has been extremely cold — down in the 40s and 50s during the day. We worked all six dogs long and hard to cover as much ground as we could during daylight hours. We were racing against the clock to find live victims. The dogs thrive in cold weather, which was the main reason  they could work for so long in such difficult terrain. All our training and experience, great cold-weather gear, and the nutrition and supplements we feed our dogs came together to make this kind of intensive searching possible.

“The search teams went out in groups of two to search a specific area. Once they got to their area, they broke into singles. For example, if two teams were sent to an area with 30 buildings to search, they divided the buildings up between them. Since this was a ‘hasty’ search, they did not send both dogs into the same building in order to confirm the first dog’s search. Their job was to clear the area as quickly as possible.”

On March 21, a tired but proud CA-TF2 returned home. Despite many hours of hard work in difficult conditions, the scale of the destruction was so vast that they were unable to find any survivors. The SDF’s website ( sums up the experience well, quoting one of the team members:

“Just being at this deployment to Japan was life changing for me. We were surrounded by complete destruction. I realized that the objects I was walking on had come from somewhere else far away. At first, it was challenging just to get your head around it all. Seeing the dogs function in this extreme search environment completely validated the training we have done.”

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