Rescue Dogs Saving Lives for a Game of Tug-of-War

July 27, 2020 Written by: Erica Aarons

On the night of April 7, 2020, search and rescue dog Luka and his handler Adam Leckonby were scouting out a ravine in Rotterdam, New York in search of a 12-year-old boy and 14-year-old girl. The kids had lost their way on an adventure walk five hours earlier that day and it was getting urgent with cold and rainy weather. 

Through the dark, wet conditions, Luka, a 4 ½-year-old Belgian Malinois, eagerly sniffed out the right way to go and led Leckonby right to where the two kids had taken shelter under some fallen vegetation. The kids were cold and shaken, but safe and unharmed. As a reward for a job well done, Luka got to play a good game of tug-of-war with the children he’d just found.

Search & Rescue K9 Luka searching through concrete rubbleLuka on the Search

Luka is one of 80 active search dogs that the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) has rescued from animal shelters and trained to find missing people or those buried alive in the wreckage of disasters. Founded in 1996 as a non-profit, non-governmental organization, SDF seeks out dogs with more energy than your average family household can handle and an insatiable desire to play with toys. 

The group then covers all costs to get these pups (and their future handlers) trained up and ready for action. It also provides handlers’ grants for further equipment — including Rex Specs. When these dogs get too old for work SDF ensures all retired pooches get a loving fur-ever home at the end of their service either with their handler or with another loving family.

Luka started his life as a stray in Tracy, CA where he landed in a shelter and struggled to find his fur-ever home as a result of being “too much dog” for his adoptive families. An SDF recruiter eventually scooped Luka up to get extensive training and eventually join his new partner, Leckonby in New York.

The rescue dog trainees go through eight to ten months of professional training on SDF’s 125-acre National Training Center (NTC) in Santa Paula, CA. Along with lots of love and care, the dogs receive agility and obedience training, and advanced training challenges traversing collapsed structures, vehicle wrecks, and wilderness ravines.

SDF’s K9 teams have been on the scene helping through disasters around the country including 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, among countless other hurricanes, mudslides, building collapses, and missing person searches. The teams have also helped internationally during the devastating 2015 earthquake in Nepal and 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

During the 2018 mudslide in Montecito, CA 18 SDF-trained canine disaster search teams covered approximately 30 square miles of debris-, rock-, and mud-covered ground and helped rescue folks trapped by the mud. Roxy, a shepherd mix, and her handler Cynthia Sato-Tompkins were one of the teams sent out to help.

Rex Specs For The Working Dog

Roxy originally went by Diva when her owner surrendered her to the Sacramento SPCA in March 2012. Diva’s first owner had gotten her from a friend as a stray, but they couldn’t keep up with her energy. She was great with people, but she was chasing chickens and causing trouble, so they took her to the shelter. There, she got her big break. The SPCA staff saw Roxy’s high energy and endless devotion to playing and got SDF involved. 

When Roxy got to the NTC, one of the trainers immediately noted Roxy had, “Good focus, was a natural traveler on rubble, and used her nose well.” Eight months later, Roxy graduated the canine training program and partnered with Sato-Tompkins, a firefighter/paramedic with the Los Angeles Fire Department. They passed their FEMA Advanced Certification Exam in 2013 which means they can deploy wherever they’re needed in the country. The pair has since been on three deployments including the Montecito mudslide.

Search Dog Roxy Walking to a Job
Roxy walking with her handler to a Search

SDF has found eye protection such as the Rex Specs especially helpful for their four-legged rescuers during thick brush wilderness searches and Urban Search and Rescue areas with fine airborne particulates. SDF started using Rex Specs in the kennel last year and they’ve proved invaluable during off-facility training for dogs who’ve already suffered a minor eye injury to avoid further trauma.

Learn more about SDF:

Words by Johanna Flashman

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