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NIPPONIA No.33 June 15, 2005

Looking for survivors under the rubble
Rescue dogs
The Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake caused tremendous damage in the Kobe region in January 1995, and it was a wake-up call for the Japanese, who had become somewhat blasé about sudden seismic activity. One lesson they learned is that if people are trapped under rubble, rescue dogs can be very useful in finding them. Since then, grassroots groups have been training and keeping rescue dogs on the ready, and a growing number of people are training their pet dogs for rescue work.
The Japan Rescue Association, one such grassroots group, is based in Itami, Hyogo Prefecture. It has a training ground that closely resembles a disaster zone, complete with collapsed cement buildings and piles of rubble. Every day there, dog trainers put their four-legged friends to work.
A rescue dog needs to be in very good shape. But that is not enough, says Mimura Tomoko, one of the Association's dog team leaders. " The most important thing is motivation — for example, the dog should really want to play catch and bring the ball back to the trainer. We play ball games with the dogs to reward them after they find someone during the training exercises. Their level of excitement during games tells us if they might be good in a rescue situation. After a disaster, every second counts for survivors. And we can't have our dogs telling us someone is trapped in a certain place when it's not true. A dog is no use in a rescue operation if it's right only part of the time, because people's lives are at stake. The idea is to get the dog to always give us correct messages, to bark only when it actually does find someone. Then we praise it and play ball with it. Our only option is to train our dogs so that they do that, time after time."
The dogs on Mimura's team get plenty of experience looking for people under concrete rubble and landslides. Of all their tasks, nothing is more difficult.
The hard training sessions have paid off — the team and their dog rescuers have already found survivors and bodies in western India and southeastern Iran, after major earthquakes in January 2001 and December 2003, respectively.
Mimura says, " When the dog finds the body of a victim, the relatives praise and thank the dog, in spite of their emotional distress. This helps boost our morale."NIPPONIA
Above: Mimura Tomoko is the leader of a rescue dog team. She herself was caught up in the earthquake that rocked the Kobe region in 1995.
Right: A rescue dog looking for people buried deep under the rubble of a collapsed concrete building. When the dog finds someone, it tells rescuers by running around the immediate area and barking.


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