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Rescue dogs put through certification paces

Hank, a trained rescue dog from Colorado, looks for “survivors” under rubble during a certification exercise in Littleton last weekend.

Photos by Ellen Harasimowicz for The Boston Globe

Hank, a trained rescue dog from Colorado, looks for “survivors” under rubble during a certification exercise in Littleton last weekend.

Ellen Harasimowicz for The Bosto

Handler Amos Hess comforted Liberty after she missed two victims.

Hank, a rescue dog, climbed the pile of rubble, carefully sidestepping slate slabs, wooden crates, and concrete tubing, rushing to find any survivors beneath the debris. He stood still for a moment, pausing to see if he could sense any life from below, and then did what he does best.

He barked for 45 seconds to notify his handler of a live victim before receiving a rope tug-toy reward, tail wagging happily at his success.

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Hank, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, was one of 23 trained rescue dogs to try for a Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, Urban Search and Rescue certification in Littleton last weekend. Only six to nine certification trials are offered nationwide each year.

Fifteen of the dogs received certification. Hank, who was being tested for the first time, did not pass but can try again.

If the dogs pass the test, held rain or shine, then they remain certified for three years, allowing them to join FEMA rescue teams to help victims in serious disasters worldwide.

The certification course, which attracted dogs and their handlers from all around the country, was hosted by Aggregate Industries, a Waltham-based construction material company, on a picturesque 88 acres in Littleton. It was the second time that the certification test was done at the site.

FEMA approached Aggregate two years ago to host rescue canine training and certification courses, as the company has a lot of land and more than enough construction materials for rubble piles.

Ellen Harasimowicz for The Bosto

Raider checked for his grade from a FEMA evaluator

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“There are a limited number of facilities that qualify for training, and this is one of them,” said Joel Nickel, environmental and land services manager for the company.

“This is a way for Aggregate Industries to give back to the community, not just locally, but across the nation and the world,” said Scott Colby, environmental and estates manager for Aggregate.

The FEMA test in Littleton required dogs and their handlers to traverse two piles of dangerous rubble, with 20 minutes allotted for each one. The piles had a number of volunteers serving as live victims hidden below the surface, and the canines were only allowed to miss locating one. When the dogs find a victim, they must bark for 45 seconds to indicate the person’s location, and are immediately disqualified if they bark at an empty spot.

Mark Foster, program manager for the Massachusetts FEMA task force team, said any dog can become a rescue canine, regardless of breed, as long as they have athletic ability, a curious drive, nonaggressive mannerisms, and a craving for a playful reward.

“If you think about baseball, (Boston Red Sox Dustin) Pedroia and Big Papi (teammate David Ortiz) both hit pretty good, but they don’t look the same,” Foster said.

Each year, of the approximately 300 certified rescue dogs in America, 85 percent of the canine’s handlers are civilian volunteers. The remaining 15 percent are usually members of fire or police units, but the majority of pooches are considered the handler’s “family dog,” according to FEMA.

However, Christopher Sutton, a Colorado-based firefighter who looks after Hank, said taking care of the dog is anything but relaxing.

When asked to put a number on the hours he spends training Hank each week, Sutton laughed and said they are countless.

“It’s a lot of work — he’s almost a full-time job,” Sutton said. “We’re doing something to train him every day.”

Sutton said that his time with Hank is mostly rewarding, but added that the responsibility has its drawbacks, such as the time-intensive training and bonding, Hank’s living expenses — which Sutton mostly pays for out of his own pocket — and the constant high energy level that renders the dog unable to simply curl up on the couch with him.

“I view him as my work partner,” Sutton said. “Rescue dogs don’t make good pets because they always need to work. They need to have a job.”

Lee Prentiss, a canine handler who owns three rescue dogs and another canine trained to find human remains, said his dogs possess the same zest for work, describing how one would shake with excitement upon seeing a pile of wreckage.

“This is a playground to them,” Prentiss said, motioning to the 10,000-square-foot pile of concrete and debris jutting more than 10 feet high. “If I brought my dogs here right now, I’m 90 percent sure they would be wagging their tails.”

Prentiss, unlike Sutton, said he likes having such enthusiastic pooches for pets, but said the emotional attachment gets tough when his dogs are sent into dangerous situations.

“They’re our family — they’re like kids to us,” he said.

Dr. Lori Gordon, a local veterinarian who takes care of search dogs during missions, dedicates five hours every weekend to training the dogs and their handlers, and has worked with the canines at disaster scenes like hurricanes Gustav and Irene.

“This is a passion,” Gordon said of her and the handlers’ work with the dogs, adding that the all-volunteer rescue teams only receive payment when deployed on FEMA missions.

Gordon said the rescue canines must be athletic and adventurous, as their job is to explore hazardous sites where they are put in danger.

“The dogs don’t wear personal protective equipment, so they’re exposed to a lot,” Gordon said, citing dust and debris, chemical spills, smoke from fire, sharp glass, and barbed metal as dangerous elements the animals are exposed to.

Sheila McKee, a Highland, Calif., resident who has trained dogs for the live-victim certification program for 31 years, flew in to watch four of her pupils try to pass the test, including the boundlessly animated Hank.

McKee said she and another rescue yellow Labrador retriever, Guinness, deployed to New York City after Sept. 11, 2001, and stayed for 10 days helping to recover victims from the attack.

“It was very challenging, but it was a real honor to be there to help,” she said.

McKee said when she trains puppies who show promising rescue ability, she seeks dogs who are highly obedient and controllable, yet also independent and confident, adding that the pups must be highly driven by rewards — the main training tool for rescuers.

McKee also said that her years of expertise allow her to predict which puppies will eventually pass the FEMA certification test, where usually only 40 percent to 80 percent of the dogs trying out succeed.

And while McKee fetches a handsome price for selling the dogs she raises from puppies — ranging from $3,000 to $15,000 after training — she said she still feels nostalgic when she must part ways with them.

“The great thing is the dogs are going to a person who will be their partner for life,” McKee said.

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