Handler and Canine Deployment Survey

Lori E. Gordon, DVM



This survey was conducted in response to medical abnormalities discovered at post-mission veterinary examinations and tests of several canines that deployed to Joplin, Missouri for the tornado response. The original intent was to investigate the underlying cause for the abnormalities and formulate solutions to prevent and/or avoid such occurrences in the future. In addition, these findings would bring to the forefront contamination exposure risks that search canines face, raise awareness of their situation, and highlight the importance of decontamination procedures and physical examinations and testing by licensed veterinarians.

This deployment did not involve any Task Forces deployed under federal sanctioning, however the majority of Canine Search Specialists were affiliated with a federal agency as members of FEMA US&R teams that deployed as state assets for this mission. One of the interesting differences was the majority of survey canines were Human Remains Detection (HRD) certified, including 2 dual-certified live find (LF) and HRD canines.


Information Collection Method

A survey was sent out electronically to handlers that deployed in response to the Joplin, Missouri tornado.  Questions included canine signalment (breed, age, gender, weight), billeting, physical examinations performed, work shift information, preventative medicine status, injuries and illnesses incurred, decontamination procedures, briefing details, and post-mission examinations and testing. The information was collected, analyzed, and presented in this report by the author.


Brief History

On Sunday, May 22, 2011, super cell thunderstorms were reported from southeast Kansas to southwest Missouri. An Enhanced Fujita-5 (EF-5) tornado touched down in Joplin, Missouri at 6:41 PM. Winds were measured in excess of 200 miles per hour. The tornado path measured 22.1 miles long and up to 1 mile wide, destroying an area ¾ miles wide and 6 miles long through central Joplin.



Summary of Findings

This survey included 13 Canine Search Specialists who deployed as a state asset. Eleven of them were from teams that also are members of the FEMA US&R system. Their experience as handlers ranged from 2 years to 15 years, with an average of 7 years. The majority of handlers 9 of 13, 69%) had between 3 and 8 ½ years experience.

There were 14 Certified Canines for this survey. One handler deployed with 2 canines. The majority breed was Labrador Retriever (6 of 14, 43%) with Belgian Malinois second (3 of 14, 21%). The youngest was 1 year and 10 months old, the oldest 9 years and 9 months old. The majority of canines (11 of 14, 79%) were 5 years to 9.75 years old, with half (7 of 14, 50%) at 5.5-6.6 years of age. The majority (11 of 14, 79%) were altered (6 female spay, 5 male neuter). They weighed in at 45 to 74 pounds, with an average of 60 pounds.

Search capabilities among the 14 canines were 7 HRD (50%), 5 LF (36%), and 2 dual-trained in HRD and LF (14%). The bark alert was most common (8 canines, 57%). One of the 2 dual-trained canine displayed bark alert for both HRD and LF, while the other had separate alerts for each type find (LF bark and HRD sit). Their certifications were  from 6 different agencies, with FEMA and IPWDA most common at 4 canines each. Only 1 canine had never deployed before. At least half of them had 1-14 prior missions including FEMA US&R and others.

All Missouri-based handler-canine search pairs were activated the day of the tornado, May 22, 2011, and arrived on site 2.5-8 hours later at 0100-0300 May 23, 2011. Other teams arrived over the next 8 days. Demobilization orders came between May 24 and June 3, with actual departures from 1-18 hours later. Mission duration ranged from 2 days to 7 days, with an average of 3½ days. Staging locations included a church, parking lot of the high school, parking lot of the hospital, and lot outside of the Home Depot.

Briefings that included the locations of medical stations were received by 7 handlers (54%). Additional information about off-site veterinary hospitals was known to 4 handlers (31%). HazMat and safety concerns related to one handler included antifreeze, oil, fuels, pesticides, insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides.

A total of 41 shifts were reported for the 13 handlers and 14 canines. One shift time, not reported, was not included in the data. Most teams worked several shifts, although they varied greatly in length of time. Work shifts ranged from 6 hours to 38 hours, with an average of 12.3 hours. Day shifts numbered 31 (77.5%) and shifts that encompassed day and night hours numbered 9 (22.5%). The most common shift was 0800 – 1700 hours. Half of the shifts (20 of 40, 50%) were between 0700 and 1900 hours.

Rest periods ranged from 15 minute breaks to 2 hours. The 30 minute rest time was most often quoted  by the handlers. The marked variation is listed in the main text.

Three handlers with LF canines reported 2 canines had no alerts, the other canine had 2: one victim asleep in a car and the other asleep in a ruined house. Four handlers with HRD canines reported no finds. One alerted where a body had previously been removed. One handler with a dual-certified canine reported over a dozen full bodies plus pieces. She stopped counting after a while.

All canines were current on heartworm preventative and flea & tick repellants. Two canines had marked tick infestations while deployed, one of which had their flea & tick repellant reapplied during the mission.

Physical examinations were as follows. Pre-Mission canine PE by a licensed veterinarian was reported by 1 handler, which was by coincidence and not purposefully done for this deployment. Pre-Shift PE was performed on 7 canines (50%), 6 of which were performed by the handler. Post-Shift PE was performed on 11 canines (79%), 6 of which were performed by the handler. Demobilization PE was performed on 2 canines (14%), both done by a veterinarian at the BoO. Additional PEs performed during the mission were for 8 canines (57%), 4 of which were due to medical concerns: 2 exams done by the handler, 1 by a team MD, and one by a VT.

Medial parameters were checked at various times. Temperature, heart sounds, and lung sounds were the least checked at 17% – 44% of the time. Pulse, respiration, eyes, ears, mucous membranes, skin, paw pads, stool, urine, and limb joint checks were performed the most at 67% – 100 % of the time.

Prophylactic subcutaneous (SC) fluids were administered to 3 of the 14 canines (21%) due to concerns regarding potential dehydration. Dehydration was not detected for the 2 canines who received SC fluids before and after each shift.

During deployment, 11 canines (79%) incurred illness and or injury. Multiple injury and illness was experienced by 7 of them. Wounding was the most common injury (64%) and dehydration was the most common illness (21%). Details of the problems are in the main text.

Decontamination procedures were performed for 11 of the 14 canines (79%). Most were done after their shift, and all before entering BoO or rest areas. Soap and water were the most common methods used (for 9 of 11 canines, 73%). Nine handlers reported there was a decontamination station set up at one or more locations. The locations were at the search sites and at the BoO.

Post-Mission PEs were acquired by handlers and performed by their primary care veterinarians, for 12 canines (86%). Of these 12 canines, 9 were examined for medical problems. Most (7) were seen within 24 hours of their arrival home. The other 3, examined at 1, 7, and 30 days post deployment, were routine exams and no problems detected.

There were 6 canines with abnormal blood tests. These abnormalities were possibly related to liver and kidney damage, but veterinary medical records could not be obtained for all canines. Of the 4 veterinary medical records that were obtained, 3 of them were incomplete. Fortunately all issues resolved within 2 days to 3 months.


Data Interpretation and Comments

Currently FEMA does not officially deploy HRD canines. In the past they have been deployed for special mission requests (i.e. Columbia Shuttle Explosion). Several federal teams that also deploy as a state asset have also utilized HRD certified canines. As demonstrated in Joplin, HRD canines were utilized extensively. This supports the modular deployment concept, including HRD missions, being examined by the FEMA US&R Program Office. Recommend continued support for modular HRD canine missions and allowing task forces to include HRD canines in full scale Type I deployments.

FEMA guidelines recommend 12-hour shifts, for every 20-45 minutes of work, allow for an equal time of rest. This minimizes fatigue and illness, maximizes performance efficiency and safety. Shifts of more than 12 hours increases the likelihood for accidents, injury, and errors. It also decreases the search capabilities of the canines. The same can be said of the human team members. The canine will become non-useful, possibly injured, and the team will lose a great asset. Recommend stricter adherence to as close to a 12-hour shift as possible to maintain the health and efficiency of search canines.

Despite being current on HWP, 2 canines were inundated with ticks. Not all flea & tick repellants are alike, and resistance is becoming more common. Options include changing to newer spot-on products, application of products every 3 weeks rather than every 4 weeks, and adding oral preventative medications to the regimen. Recommend handlers include bringing extra flea & tick preventatives for administration if needed, researching newer products and self-education about safety and overdose concerns, and having the US&R Veterinary Group create a reference for handlers concerning flea & tick preventative options.

There were almost no Pre-Mission examinations performed. One canine had a pre-existing condition which was exacerbated during the deployment. Temperatures, an important aspect of a Good PE, was rarely included. Handlers were the most common examiners, and conducted brief but thorough exams that stressed the most concerns for canines during a mission. The majority of PEs were Post-Shift, however many things may develop during rest periods and Pre-Shift checks can be just as important. There was some veterinary support during the deployment. Recommend handlers, if possible, acquire Pre-Mission PE, include Pre-Shift checks as well as Post-Shift, and have a demobilization check with at least one of these PEs by a veterinarian, VT, or MD trained in canine care.

Prophylactic subcutaneous fluids are being considered more often as aids in decreasing potential dehydration. Currently there is no published scientific data regarding potential benefits and/or contraindications for giving a working canine subcutaneous fluids in an effort to prevent and/or delay the onset of dehydration and other heat-related conditions. Studies are being conducted. Recommendation is to encourage oral intake of water, reserving the administration of subcutaneous fluids for extreme weather conditions or for medical treatment.

A majority of handlers did not receive HazMat and safety briefings concerning potential contaminants. It soon became evident to handlers searching in water and at Home Depot that there were multiple contaminants to which their canines were being exposed. Decontamination was performed for most canines, but factoring in 15 – 38 hour shifts and minimal decon or hours between decon procedures were highly suspect as the cause of post-mission liver and kidney problems. Contaminants, including nerve agents, can be absorbed through the paw pads. Recommend handlers carry or acquire more supplies for decontamination, even just wipes, to perform multiple times during searches among highly contaminated environments, and consider training with and using booties if the search area surface is flat or the booties will not compromise canine footing (building searches) to decrease absorption through paw pads.

Nearly 80% of the canines had medical issues. Wounding was the most common injury, dehydration the most common illness. These are consistent with findings in a report by this same author, on injuries and illnesses incurred by the canines deployed to Haiti. Recommend training, supplies, and medications reflect the high incidence of these medical issues

Most of canines were brought for post-mission veterinary checks. Considering the amount of deployment injuries and contaminant exposures, this was a very important step to maintain their health. Some handlers got their canines an exam after hearing the Missouri canines were ill. Recommend Post-Mission Examinations be mandated and financially supported by the governing agencies when significant injury, illness, and/or contaminant exposure is evident. In addition, communication between Canine Search Specialists from different teams should be maintained for 2-4 weeks after an event in order to disseminate information regarding health issues.


Abbreviations for Reference

  • ALT – alanine aminotransferase
  • BoO – Base of Operations
  • BUN – Blood Urea Nitrogen
  • CBC – Complete Blood Count
  • CRT – Capillary Refill Time
  • FEMA – Federal Emergency Management Agency
  • HazMat – Hazardous Materials
  • HRD – Human Remains Detection
  • IPWDA – International Police Work Dog Association
  • LF – Live Find
  • MD – Medical Doctor
  • MM – Mucous Membrane
  • NSAID – Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatory
  • PE – Physical Examination
  • PSGAG – Polysulfated Glycosaminoglycan
  • RMSF – Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
  • SC – Subcutaneous
  • STM – Search Team Manager
  • US&R – Urban Search and Rescue
  • VT – Veterinary Technician


Definitions for Reference

Mean = the average; the numbers are added and then divide by the number of numbers

Median =  the middle value in the list of numbers

Mode = the value that occurs most often; if no number is repeated, there is no mode

Range = is the difference between the largest and smallest values


Handler Response Information

Please note that this was not a federal agency deployment, and a complete list of all deployed handlers was not attained. Survey requests were sent to as many as could be acquired, but this report does not reflect all handlers that deployed for this mission.

There were 13 canine handlers that were asked to complete a survey about their response to the Joplin, MO Tornado. All 13 responded.

  • One handler deployed with 2 canines
  • 5 teams are represented: 5 from MO-TF 1, 2 each from NE-TF 1, TN-TF 1, TX-TF 1, 2 from Illinois Search Dogs (currently Illinois Search Dogs of McLean County EMA)
  • Handlers’ service time with their deployed teams ranged from 2 years to 15 years (Mean =  7 years 1 month, Median = 7 years 8 months, Mode = 3 years)



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