NORMAN — It’s not every day that someone who has been rescued is able to return the favor, but several dogs on Oklahoma Task Force 1’s search and rescue units get that chance every time they receive a call for help.
Nine Oklahoma K9 teams consist of a task force member, usually a firefighter, and a trained search and rescue (SAR) canine from the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (NDSDF).
And it was all paws on deck after the May 20 tornado that tore through Moore as 28 total K9 teams from six states responded, including eight teams from Oklahoma City and Tulsa. SAR K9 units from as far away as Lincoln, Neb., joined the contingency in the search for survivors, including lost children at Plaza Towers and Briarwood Elementary schools.
Twenty minutes after the tornado struck, Handler Dane Yaw and his partner, Salsa, were in Moore. They and one other K9 unit were tasked with clearing Briarwood Elementary. At a briefing, they learned that three Briarwood students were unaccounted for and Yaw’s niece, Landry, was one of them.
“As we got farther and farther through the school, and we were running out of real estate and the dogs hadn’t indicated (they found anyone), we knew what the end game was,” Yaw said. “Usually you’re like, ‘Oh, I hope my dog barks,’ but this time I was, like, ‘Dear Lord, bark!’ because I knew if she didn’t bark, it was not a good outcome.”
It took the two K9 units less than an hour to determine that no one was trapped alive in the rubble at Briarwood.
Fortunately, shortly after finishing the search, Yaw’s wife sent him a text to say they had found his niece. Her grandparents had picked her up from the evacuation center just after the tornado hit, and she was safe.
Yaw and Salsa quickly moved into the surrounding neighborhoods, ready to help rescue others in need — a way of giving back, perhaps, because Salsa is a rescue dog.
Salsa is one of the many success stories to come out of the NDSDF, a nonprofit organization that relies on donations to function. The NDSDF’s website says that it “recruits dogs from across the country that are rescued from abuse or abandonment.”
Guide Dogs of America gave Salsa to the NDSDF, and two of her canine coworkers on Oklahoma Task Force 1 OK-TF1, Elvis and Royce, were recruited from California’s Santa Barbara Animal Care and Control.
Other OK-TF1 dogs were rescued from similar situations around the country. Now, all nine rescued dogs have the opportunity and skills to return the favor and rescue others.
The extensive training for a rescue dog is not cheap, costing between $10,000 and $15,000 to train a single SAR K9.
“They’re basically a dog out of the box,” Yaw said. “They are extremely, highly trained.”
NDSDF then provides free extensive, ongoing support and training to the dog’s handler — usually a firefighter or other first responder.
Holli Pfau, handler, has several rescue dogs and has written a book titled “Pure Gold: Adventures with Six Rescued Golden Retrievers.” Pfau, who lives in Colorado, is dedicating proceeds of her June book sales to NDSDF in support of the organization and tornado survivors. The book can be ordered online at puregoldbook.com.
“It’s a wonderful way to support their (NDSDF’s) work in rescuing homeless dogs and rescuing humans. It brings the relationship full circle,” Pfau said.
And the circle will be redrawn every time OK-TF1’s group of 125 search and rescue volunteers comprising 13 teams mobilizes state or nationwide at a moment’s notice in response to natural or man-made disasters.
For more information about the NDSDF, to donate or to volunteer, visit searchdogfoundation.org/