SAVANNAH looked at me with her large gentle eyes and raised a paw for me to gently shake. Then she sat at her owner Susan Redmond's feet obediently, with one eye occasionally rolling over to keep an eye on me.
Strong bonds: Savannah with Susan Redmond. PHOTO: Nirmal Ghosh
Around five months ago on May 13 when the floor and dome of a movie theatre under construction in Bangkok collapsed at around 5am, four injured workers were pulled out alive from the dense mass of twisted, tangled steel scaffolding.
Unable to find three others buried under drying concrete slabs, Thai authorities called the Thai Rescue Dog Association (TRDA) for help.
By the time the dogs arrived two had been recovered — dead. The location of the third remained unknown.
Savannah, a golden retriever belonging to New Zealand-born volunteer Susan Redmond, went into the thicket of steel. She detected the man – under 50 cm of concrete.
Unfortunately he too was dead. But Savannah and the TRDA had proved themselves.
The TRDA is the only civilian institution in the region doing pioneering work in training rescue dogs and handlers.
The idea of starting the TRDA germinated after the tsunami of December 2004. The TRDA was set up as a voluntary centre with costs met entirely through sponsorships.
One volunteer is Susan Redmond, 45, a former aviation instructor who has been in Thailand 9 years and has an absolute passion for dogs and the outdoors, and loves the fact that she can work together with Savannah to help people.
Today the TRDA has some 300 members. But only three – with their dogs - are qualified. That is because the training for both dog and owner is extremely rigorous and not many can stay the full, two-year course.
Savannah was two years old when she qualified as a rescue dog – the youngest so far to make the grade under the TRDA programme. Today she is 3.
Handlers are trained in the use of compasses and global positioning system (GPS) based navigation and mapping; first aid for both humans and dogs; forest survival; and skills like rappelling down from a helicopter or a building with their dog harnessed to them. Both handlers and dogs must be fit. Handlers must be ready to pack minimal supplies and move at just minutes' notice.
Rigorous training: The biggest ingredient is commitment. PHOTO: TRDA
For the dogs, much depends on temperament and the trust between dog and handler. Dogs – trained to work for a reward – must be absolutely obedient; not baulk at going into dangerous situations or bad conditions like shifting rubble and broken glass litter; must work with other dogs and people; must be strong and agile and hardy; and also must enjoy their work.
"They must be brave and big-hearted" says Suthikiet Sopanik, 56, a veteran anti-land mine activist who runs the TRDA.
It was 2007 by the time the TRDA was "mission-ready". That year the TRDA's dogs were deployed at a landslide in Uttaradit province, and successfully found five bodies buried in the thick mud.
Mr Suthikiet, 56, got his own training in Samsung Corporation's sprawling, elaborate Search and Rescue Dog Centre in South Korea, which trains working dogs in a wide range of fields from companionship and assistance to the handicapped, to searching for land mines and disaster victims.
Pioneering work: Suthikiet Sopanik being interviewed. PHOTO: TRDA
Thai government agencies do not have disaster rescue dog capabilities, so the TRDA fills that need. The TRDA's five mission-ready dogs – two of their own donated by Samsung and three belonging to private owners like Susan Redmond – train every weekend at Kasetsart University in Bangkok for beginners, and at Khao Yai for advanced members.
Dogs are trained to keep an eye on their handler who communicates often through hand signals especially when the environment is crowded and noisy.
They are trained to sort through smells (dogs' sense of smell is in general around 400 times more acute than humans') and home in on people in distress postures. A myriad distractions are provided, including food – but the dog is trained to ignore all and focus solely on the objective.
In the exercises, volunteers pose as "victims" by hiding in crouched or lying position in abandoned buildings, forests, or scrap yards.
Dangerous work, large hearts. PHOTO: TRDA
In the aftermath of the Oklahoma City and 9-11 attacks in the US, when dogs worked hard and found only dead bodies, they actually became depressed, Susan Redmond told me.
Search and rescue teams had to "plant" live victims so that the dogs felt it was worthwhile going through all the effort.
Mr Suthikiet – Khun Moo to those who know and work with him – hopes to build more rescue dog teams to assist government agencies.
But volunteers need to be committed to the training, willing to support themselves – and sponsors are needed to pay for the approximately 500,000 Baht a year that it takes to keep the TRDA going in its present form.
Still, the biggest ingredient is commitment.