When the hell hounds came home from Haiti, the mayor threw a heroes' welcome. The four black Labrador retrievers — any one of which could annihilate a china shop by wagging its tail — helped rescue a 7-year-old girl and six others trapped under collapsed buildings in Port-au-Prince in late January. "You make me very proud to be mayor," Pam Iorio told their handlers.
The dogs are Party Girl, Cinder, Powder and Doak. They're high-strung and high maintenance. As puppies, they'd chew legs off tables. Over the years, they've been conditioned into packages of nose and adrenaline that must be restrained from leaping off rooftops.
After the mayor's welcome, their handlers — Tampa Fire Rescue Lts. Roger Picard and Brian Smithey — stopped for lunch at Vallarta's, a Mexican restaurant on Anderson Road. They left the four dogs in cages in their trucks, with the tailgates open for air.
Party Girl, Picard's dog, discovered the latch on her cage undone. She opened the cage, leapt out of the truck. She picked up Picard's scent. It led to the restaurant. She ran to the front of the restaurant and found a closed door. She ran to the back. She found an open kitchen door.
Inside, at their table, Picard and Smithey heard a commotion in the kitchen.
Party Girl bolted into the restaurant, chased by the cooks. She ran straight to Picard's table.
For Party Girl to do that took a genetic stew of traits called canine drives and one exquisite quality called canine nerve strength. It took thousands of dollars out of Picard's pocket, years of chewed sofas, obedience classes and lost family time. It took months of Sundays at a place that looks exactly as though an earthquake had hit.
It's called the rubble pile. The pile is a long, high mountain of concrete slabs at Independence Recycling on E Hillsborough Avenue near Interstate 75. It looks like a collapsed city block, but it's actually construction debris waiting to be recycled into cement. It's where dogs like Party Girl learn to save lives.
On a Sunday, two firemen stood on top of the pile with videocameras and a timer. Another climbed down into the rubble, squeezed himself into a hole under the slabs, then covered himself with a board and a dusty tarpaulin.
Down below, Smithey stood behind Powder, his hands around the dog's chest. He rubbed the dog's chest hard. He made his voice squeaky, high-pitched.
"Are you ready? Are you ready?"
He let go.
The game was on.
• • •
Most of the dogs at the rubble pile got their start at the Maranatha Farm Kennels in West Buxton, Maine. Smithey bought Powder there in 2006. Picard bought Party Girl there in 2008. They rely on Maranatha breeder June Cawood to save from puppy litters the Labs that seem born for search and rescue.
The potential rescue dog that Cawood looks for in each litter: "The naughtiest," she said. "The dog that needs a job."
Picard and Smithey are among the 80 members of the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 2 that went to Haiti after the quake. Every member owns and trains his own dogs. Training is almost nonstop. When Picard and Smithey take their wives shopping at Walmart, they duck out back to let their dogs practice jumping over pallets.
Each handler pays all up-front costs. A puppy can cost upwards of $3,000 and usually takes two years to train. Tampa Fire Rescue pays a stipend only after a dog is certified.
Picard and Smithey like to say they want the puppy no one else wants. The want the one that bounces off walls, chews every shoe in sight, the one that skids across the living room howling like a Hound of Baskerville when the doorbell rings.
They want the dog any normal family would return to the kennel after two weeks, demanding their money back.
Enter Party Girl. The first time Picard met her, "she jumped on me from behind and ripped a Frisbee out of my pocket and took off with it."
In that love-at-first-bite introduction, Picard saw qualities that tend to score high on an exhaustive series of search-dog tests called the Brownell-Marsolais Scale. Dogs must pass the tests for state and federal certification.
The qualities are called "canine drives," defined as innate impulses that drive a dog to action. Every dog has different levels of them. Every dog also has different degrees of something called "nerve strength." You might define it as courage, heart.
Pack drive is one of the crucial canine drives. That's friendliness, an ability to work in groups. Another is play drive. Dogs with a lot of it like to roughhouse, run, play tug-of-war. It's essential for bonding with a handler and relieving stress during search missions. Even with lives at stake, to a dog a search is just a game. Another is prey drive, the drive to pursue and capture. The dog is driven to capture and hold a victim buried under rubble. And there's hunt drive, the ability of a dog to search with his nose.
Dogs with high nerve strength seem to lack any kind of fear. They can't be stopped by glass shards, jagged rocks, ladders, tunnels or crawl spaces. They'll charge past gunfire, jackhammers, fire and dust clouds. Dogs that have it will stand up to smoke grenades.
Party Girl embodies all those qualities. "She was born with them," Picard said.
His other dog, Cinder, "is an OCD dog," meaning obsessive-compulsive. She'll tolerate crowds, but her pack drive isn't strong; she's not a socializer. She just wants to play the gotcha game. She'll jump and moan when she sees him change into his training clothes.
Smithey's dog Doak is the only male, named after FSU's Doak Campbell Stadium. He's Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky, a ferocious tail-wagger that loves crowds and is always the dog chosen for school show-and-tells.
Powder, his other dog, takes some explaining. She's a kamikaze dog, one that rates so high in nerve strength that she once tried to jump over the wall on the roof of a fire station.
"Luckily," Smithey said, "I had her on a leash."
• • •
Back at the rubble pile, the searchers had assembled three victims, each awaiting a turn at being buried alive.
One was 13-year-old Gage Mann, the son of Bill Mann, a Tampa Fire Rescue searcher whose Lab is named Bella.
Another was 16-year-old Katarina Muyres, Smithey's next-door neighbor. Gage and Katarina are always willing to be stuffed under concrete.
The third victim was searcher Vince Hazelbaker, who works for Lakeland Fire Rescue. He was there with his Lab, Cabela. He volunteered to take the first turn under the pile.
Hazelbaker, holding Powder's favorite ring toy, lowered himself into a hole between big slabs. He covered himself with a board and tarpaulin.
Then Smithey brought Powder from her cage in the truck. She moaned with excitement, but she obeyed Smithey's command to sit and wait.
Smithey held her around the chest and made his voice squeaky. Dogs like squeaky. Even firemen with baritones have to learn to talk squeaky. "Are you ready? Are you ready?" He held Powder back.
Then he let her go.
She charged at the pile. She danced upward, leaping from slab to slab until at the summit. There she found the two firefighters standing with cameras and a timer.
She ignored them.
Anyone visible, she knew, is not in the game.
Instead, she quickly circled the pile, her head low. She was taking inventory with her nose. She scented for "skin rafts" — microscopic skin cells that humans shed constantly. They produce an odor unique to every person. One of the remarkable skills all dogs possess is the ability to separate multiple scents and home in on the one they want.
Powder scented three sets of skin rafts. The firemen standing there accounted for two. But Powder had inventoried a third.
The dog got more excited. She circled several times, each time tightening the perimeter, drawing closer to the victim.
Finally, Powder leapt down to the tarpaulin and barked madly. She tore off the tarp, dug her nose under the board, and Hazelbaker, in his squeakiest voice, began praising her. "Good job, Powder, get the toy, get the toy." Powder dragged him into the open by the ring toy.
She kept up her wild bark.
John Barry can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2258.