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Stories

Searching for life in Beirut: - No one but a dog can help these people

31-year old Vaclav Vancura, firefighter and handler, is known for the strong bonds he forms with his dogs in mushing disciplines as well as search and rescue ones. Currently living in Northern mountainous Czech Republic, he teams up regularly with his first dog Bella, a 9.5 years old Hungarian pointer and Weimaraner cross, to assist victims in need of help.

For Vaclav, starting in the search and rescue discipline had a meaningful purpose.

- It's possible to perfectly combine the dog's willingness to work with their fantastic nose capacity, using it to save lives, which is my primary motivation. No one but the dog can help these people at those specific moments. Avalanches, rubbles, difficult forest terrain… We scan every possible section of an area in need.

Deployed to Beirut

Vaclav and Bella were among the first foreign teams to be deployed to Beirut as members of the Urban search and rescue group, after the city suffered from a terrible blast on August 4th 2020. In Lebanon, Vaclav discovered a city he would describe as a small apocalypse.

- Blood, glass and debris were everywhere. Working conditions were made considerably harder due to high temperatures and humidity levels, which is not ideal for dogs. The asphalt they had to walk on would reach 50°C.

The dogs alternated every 10 to 15 minutes during the deployment, to let them rest and cool them down. They were working up to 10 sessions a day.

vaclav bella sar beirut

- The dogs wore durable booties for protection all day long. Unfortunately, that didn't prevent one of the dogs from getting a bad glass cut right above the bootie.

Grateful

Five dogs flew from the Czech Republic: three pointers, one Labrador Retriever and one German Shepherd, aged from 3 to 9.5 years, Bella being the oldest.

- Above all, our task was to rule out the presence of victims in our sector, scanning the area to afterwards allow access to heavy machinery that would start removing rubble. People were extremely grateful we came to their aid. They would bring us fruit and came talking with us. Despite the initial mistrust, they even brought treats for the dogs after a few days.

At the end of the day, dogs would rest with their handlers in the bunk beds.

vaclav bella sar beirut

- During the day, we were very cautious about hydrating them regularly and providing energy with rehydration products, having constant work in extremely high temperatures in mind. We tried cooling them as much as possible, watering them before and after each intervention. It was quite difficult for them, and we were all tired after only a few days.

Years of training

Several qualities are required in order to form good searching dogs, according to Vaclav. Among the most important ones would primarily be having an excellent sense of smell as well as good mobility in the field, combined with showing great mental resilience and a strong desire to work.

bella vaclav SAR beirut 2

- A good mental and physical condition is essential for the task. A good rescue dog will be one with great perseverance and working motivation. The motivation to find a victim is key.

Training a dog to be operative in search and rescue takes a lot of time and effort.

- It takes at least two years, sometimes more, before a puppy becomes a certified dog. In order for the dog to participate in an official mission, they must pass exams organized by the Ministry of Interior. These two separate exams evaluate the dog's aptitudes in rubble search and area search, and must be renewed every second year. The dog must also be cleared medically.

Strong bond

While it may seem that the dog does most of the work, having a strong connection with the handler is a necessity in this line of work.

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- The handler and the dog form a team; they can't go searching without each other. I would never pair up with someone else's dog, and there is no such thing as someone else teaming up with my dog. We're partners, as simple as that. The success of the search is greatly dependent on how well the handler is able to evaluate the work and behavior of the dog, while the dog must be used to its handler.

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