Meet Elizabeth and Ventoux. They’re a highly trained canine/handler Urban Search & Rescue team with Virginia Task Force 1. They’ve been working together for nearly six years with an impressive resume of disasters including Hurricane Sandy and the 2015 Nepal earthquake. My colleague and I were lucky enough to hang out with the duo, learning about the spirited 8-year-old Belgian Malinois and his steadfast handler.
We met up with Elizabeth and Ventoux at a Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue training site in Virginia. The site boasts a variety of realistic training scenarios like a tough-to-navigate rubble pile and several semi-collapsed buildings.
Ventoux was eager to show us his skills, performing both a search of the rubble pile and a building to find survivors. For him, training is a game of hide and seek; when he locates the hidden person, he’s presented with a toy as a reward. This is why canines with a high “toy drive” are often used in search and rescue—during a real search, they’ll look for trapped survivors with willingness and determination.
When it comes to disasters, if federal help for search and rescue is requested and approved, FEMA deploys the three nearest task force teams. In addition to these domestic deployments, Virginia Task Force 1 is unique because the team also responds internationally. This makes it especially important for Elizabeth and Ventoux to vary their training locations. The pair often visit other task forces and training sites around the country in order to prepare Ventoux to travel anywhere—whether by bus, plane, or other form of transportation. In addition to being adaptable in changing conditions, search and rescue canines must be confident enough to search independently and in spite of distractions. Elizabeth called the dogs special and noted that “not every dog is going to be able to do this work.”
Upon meeting Ventoux, it’s easy to tell he was born to be a search and rescue dog. He’s enthusiastic, energetic, and undaunted—straining on his leash in anticipation of performing a search. An important distinction, though, is that he knows the difference between work and play. According to Elizabeth, “He knows when it’s work and he’s very determined, very intense, very driven … and when we’re home, he knows he’s home, and can be a dog.”
After a long and enlightening day with Elizabeth and Ventoux, we had a newfound admiration for the bond between canine and handler. The job isn’t for everyone but those who do it are certainly heroes.