Meet Sierra and Sahara – Thailand’s search-and-rescue stars in Turkey
Two Golden Retrievers from Thailand's Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team are playing a starring role in the international mission following the earthquake disaster in Turkey and Syria.
The death toll from the 7.8-magnitude quake and aftershocks that hit southern Turkey and northern Syria on February 6 rose to more than 41,000 on Wednesday, with millions more affected in both countries.
Thai female sniffer dogs Sierra and Sahara quickly became social media stars after starting their mission on Saturday in Hatay, a southern Turkish province on the Mediterranean coast that borders Syria.
Both come from the Environmental and Social Foundation. Its director, Alongkot Choukaew, said the seven-year-old Sierra and six-year-old Sahara had passed training certified by the International Rescue Dog Organisation (IRO).
Thailand’s sniffer dog organisation
Alongkot said the National Rescue Dog Organisation (NRDO) was established a year after the tsunami hit Phuket on December 26, 2004. The organisation grew out of its predecessor, K9 USAR Thailand.
NRDO went international when it began working with the United Nations’ USAR project three years ago.
For their latest mission, Sierra and Sahara have joined 40 human members of Thailand's USAR team in Turkey and Syria.
Why Golden Retrievers?
Alongkot explained that Thailand's USAR team launched with first-generation sniffer dogs trained by two foreign expert handlers decades ago.
However, the first-gen dogs died of old age," he said.
Sierra and Sahara arrived from Sweden six years ago as Thailand’s second generation of sniffer dogs.
"We have trained these dogs since they were puppies in line with IRO standards," he said. "They have worked as sniffer dogs for three years now."
Temperatures have dropped below freezing in parts of the disaster zone, but Alongkot said people shouldn’t worry as Sierra and Sahara can adapt to the cold.
Golden Retrievers were originally bred in Scotland, where winter temperatures often drop well below zero.
"We are confident that these dogs are ready for this mission," he added.
Other dogs in Thailand's USAR team
Alongkot said Thailand's USAR team currently has six sniffer dogs in total. Four are currently on standby back home. He added that nine handlers are taking turns accompanying the dogs on their mission in Turkey.
"International rules limit the time human rescuers can spend on search and rescue missions to 10 consecutive days," he explained.
Alongkot said special safety shoes have been designed for sniffer dogs to wear in disaster zones. However, Sierra and Sahara had not worn the shoes during the first two days of their mission in Turkey as they had to climb and jump around the rubble of collapsed buildings.
"If we put safety shoes on the sniffer dogs, they wouldn’t be able to keep their balance while climbing.”
He added that the shoes are designed to protect the dogs from sharp objects as they search the rubble.
They are worn only on their front paws, to protect them as they land after jumping through the piles of masonry and glass left after buildings collapse.
Mexican dog’s death underlines dangers
The dangers were underlined when a search dog from Mexico died after rubble collapsed on top of him in Turkey.
Alongkot said he had joined the mourning for the dog, named Proteo, who was crushed while trying to help earthquake victims.
"The death of the Mexican dog has heightened the need to evaluate each situation.”
He added that the Thai USAR team will only deploy their sniffer dogs once they are confident the situation is safe.
Hope for survivors
Alongkot said there is normally only a slim chance of finding survivors 72 hours after the earthquake, but Thailand's USAR team still has hope.
"Survivors were found in Syria after five days or more than 150 hours had passed," he said.
Silence is golden
Alongkot said Sierra and Sahara have been trained to keep still and listen for sounds from the rubble.
“Teaching dogs to obey orders and be disciplined, as well as to live with happily both humans and other animals, are keys of dog training.”
Sierra and Sahara were disciplined because they had been trained since puppyhood, he said.
However, the dogs are also allowed to play and answer the call of nature under the supervision of their handlers.
“This obedience is a characteristic of Golden Retrievers," he said.
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