SAR Canines Locate Disaster Survivors

For Fire Captain Mark Valentine, going to work each day with his canine companion is “the best thing I do.”


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They find survivors amid the debris of fires, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks, and can track abducted children and lost hikers when all hope seems to be lost. These are canine search and rescue dogs. Captain Mark Valentine of the Montebello Fire Department has seen first hand what these highly trained members of search and rescue teams can do.

”I love being a firefighter, helping people, fighting fires, saving lives, but my canine partners have filled a spot in my career and life,” stated Valentine, in an interview with the Matador Messenger, who has worked closely with canine partners for 17 years and is a member of the California Task Force 5 (CA-TF5).

Captain Valentine has worked with three different search dogs trained through the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF). According to the website, Valentine, while working with his canine partner Val for 12 years, “responded to numerous disasters searching for survivors of Hurricane Katrina and a fatal mudslide in La Conchita, CA.”

Valentine‘s career with canine partners began with one of the deadliest terrorist attacks on American soil. “In 1995, I was sent to Oklahoma City for Federal Building Bombing, while there I was able to watch and talk to the Search dog handlers that were working the site. I have always had a number of dogs as pets but never as a working partner,” explained Valentine. “At the time, I was unaware that I had met a person that would change a large part of my career. One of the handlers that I had watched was Wilma Melville, who later became the founder of the Search Dog Foundation.”

In early 2000, Valentine had an opportunity to become an Urban Search and Rescue Canine Handler through the Montebello Fire Department. “My department was getting search dogs from Search Dog Foundation. In June of 2000, I was partnered with my first dog by the name of Val,” explained Valentine, who currently works with Rico, a black Labrador and together they are DHS and FEMA certified.

SDF recruits dogs across the country that are rescued from abandonment or abuse. SDF is a non-profit, non-governmental organization, located in Santa Paula, California. “And we ensure lifetime care for every dog in our program: once rescued, these dogs never need to be rescued again.” You can volunteer, sponsor a search dog, or donate on the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation website.

Even with his many years of firefighting and rescue experience, Valentine’s SAR (search and rescue) dog has something that Valentine can never acquire. Dogs have up to 300 million “olfactory receptors in their noses,” according to Humans have a mere six million. Also, “The part of a dog’s brain that is devoted to analyzing smells is, proportionally speaking, 40 times greater than humans,” adds the source.

Microscopic particles of human scent are constantly being emitted. For considerable distances, millions of these airborne particles are carried out by the wind. The air scenting SAR dog is trained to locate the scent of any human in a specific search area. The dog is not restricted to the missing person’s track and can search long after the track is obliterated. Many air scenting search dogs are also trained in trailing/scent discrimination,” according to

When Valentine was asked what advice he would give to others interested in pursuing his line of work, he replied with, “It is hard to find the time and energy needed to train for years while waiting for a disaster to happen. Deployments do not happen very often. It may be years between deployments so you need to love working and training with dogs.”

For Valentine, working in search and rescue with his canine companion has been much more than a career. “The last 17 years has been the most fulfilling parts of my 35 years as a firefighter. To go to work each day with my best friend is the best thing I do. I love being a firefighter, helping people, fighting fires, and saving lives, but my canine partners have filled a spot in my career and life,” explained Valentine. “They are a part of my family, and are with me 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. We train two or three times a week for hours at a time, for the chance to go out and find someone lost, trapped or injured.”