Montana dogs work in Hurricane Katrina

bobbi gilmore


The piles of rubble left in aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were a long way from the mountains of northwest Montana.

But for Terry Crooks and his search dogs, the task at hand was no different: finding people.

Crooks, from Libby, and his black Labrador search dog spent two weeks in Louisiana in the aftermath of the hurricane, trying to find and recover people buried under the mountains of debris.

But it was his work in Montana as an avalanche rescue worker that gave him and his dog a huge advantage in finding victims of Hurricane Katrina. "It was a lot like avalanche work," Crooks said. "We were just dealing with mountains of debris. Mountain dogs are used to tough terrain. For our dogs down there it was no different that it was piles of houses. To them it was just another mountain."

Crooks works with the Glacier Avalanche Center to help people determine just where that edge is.

Although northwest Montana is well-equipped with canine handlers in the event of an avalanche, Crooks said he would prefer not having to ever use his dogs to find a body. "It's always better that the rescue doesn't happen," he said.  "People need to just pay attention to the environment. If it's not safe today, try another day."

For Crooks, whether it's in an avalanche or a hurricane, working with rescue dogs is his way of giving back to the community. "Dogs are a joy to work with," he said. "There are a lot of benefits to that."

MANY OF the people who enter canine rescue work already have some sort of rescue experience. "It's easier to train dogs than people," said Crooks, who works with the David Thompson Search and Rescue organization in Lincoln County.

But Kim Gilmore took a different tack: as a student at the University of Montana in the 1980s, she became interested in training her own search dog. 

"I just kind of fell in love with it," she said. 

Eventually she entered the search and rescue side, and is now the president of Flathead County Search and Rescue. She helps train dogs for water, snow and wildland rescues.

She uses Belgian shepherds, a working breed of dog that is well suited to rescue work. Other breeds suited for rescue work are those from the working and retrieving lines, including Australian shepherds, Border collies, labradors and retrievers, according to Crooks. Yellow labs performed especially well in Hurricane Katrina work because of their ability to handle hot weather, Crooks said.

Not all canine work is a matter of life and death.

A children's program titled "Doggie Detectives" shows kids how search dogs operate. In this program, children buried toys and even a live human volunteer in the snow. Once released from their handlers, the dogs scurried about the snow before digging up their toys and bringing them back to their owners, tails wagging.

 And this is what Gilmore says training search dogs is all about. "It's essentially a game of hide and seek," she said.  "They learn that finding people is a good thing."

It's not just the dog that finds a body; the handler has to know how wind and terrain are affecting what the dog is smelling, and where the scent is actually coming from. That's the same in avalanche rescue work, Crooks said. "In Katrina, it was really helpful understanding what was happening in all that debris," he said.

"The dog is the expert with the nose, but the handler has to use his mind and put the dog in a position where the dog's nose can be used."

  Crooks was among dozens of canine rescue teams at Katrina that were brought in from around the world. The dogs' work was invaluable to the rescue and recovery effort, he said.

"Search dogs are such a tremendous resource for search and rescue," Crooks said. "One dog can do in 30 minutes what 25 people can do in four hours. Dogs can do it really fast."

Since Hurricane Katrina, search and rescue leaders have been rethinking the way dogs are used in rescue operations, Crooks said. Many dogs are trained only to find live humans, but he's now emphasizing the fact that dogs must be cross-trained to find dead bodies. "That was really brought to light in Katrina," Crooks said. "Dogs have got to be trained specifically for what they're looking for. If it's not cross-trained to find deceased folks, it's not going to do the job." To train a dog to find deceased humans, handlers use aged human blood.

Temperature was one thing that was dramatically different between doing rescues in Montana and working on Hurricane Katrina. In Louisiana, veterinarians took the search dogs' temperatures at least 10 times a day, and the dogs received intravenous fluids twice a day to battle dehydration and contamination.  

 Keeping the dogs out of contaminated water was difficult. Most of the water at the disaster was badly contaminated with chemicals or biological remains. Many times the handlers had to work without a leash so the dog didn't get hung up in debris, Crooks explained. Without a leash, "it was very difficult to keep them out of from contaminated  water," he said. "Contamination was just everywhere."

The disaster that Crooks witnessed in Louisiana was more than he'd ever seen. "It was just devastation everywhere," he said. "I don't think you could ever prepare for something of that magnitude. The ocean just came in and basically swallowed up the gulf coast. The devastation was just phenomenal."

  Crooks was part the rescue effort of the December 1993 avalanche that killed several snowmobilers in the Peters Ridge area near Bigfork. While that was hectic it paled in comparison to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "It was pretty emotional at times," he said. "You're just always in shock. It proved to me that we live on a fine edge and when things go out of balance, things change very quickly."

What he saw in Louisiana was another example of human resilience; of how, in the face of disaster, humans are able to see through the pain. "People who had lost everything that they owned were just thankful they had survived with their lives or their loved ones," Crooks said. "Even the ones who lost their loved ones had a much greater appreciation of what really is important in life."

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published