A Passion for Serving Others

Peggy Wilson got involved in search and rescue about 15 years ago, and it has been a passion of hers ever since. After having lost her original search and rescue dogs to old age, she is embarking on a new journey with two new search and rescue dogs in training.

By Emily Singler

From Veterinary Medicine to Canine Search and Rescue

Peggy Wilson has worked in veterinary medicine for more than 30 years, including 20 years at Breeze Animal Hospital in Panama City Beach, Florida, where she is now the practice manager. Her love of dogs also carries over into her personal life. This has included training therapy dogs for work in hospitals, schools, and hospice care, as well as training dogs to run with her and compete in flyball (see sidebar).

About 15 years ago, she got involved in search and rescue, and it has been a passion of hers ever since.

“It is so great that I can intermingle it with my career,” Wilson said.

She volunteers for search and rescue missions both in conjunction with her local sheriff’s office and independently. Because of her extensive experience in the field, she is now the president of the National Organization of Community Search and Rescue (NOCSAR), where she also serves as an instructor and an evaluator. After having lost her original search and rescue dogs to old age, she is embarking on a new journey with two new search and rescue dogs in training.

What Is Flyball?

A dog playing flyball

Flyball races match two teams of four dogs each, racing side-by-side over a 51-foot-long course. Each dog must run in relay fashion down the jumps, trigger a flyball box that releases a tennis ball, retrieve the ball, and return over the jumps. The next dog is released to run the course, but they can’t cross the start/finish line until the previous dog has returned over all four jumps and reached the start/finish line. The first team to have all four dogs finish the course without error wins the heat.

For more information check out flyball.org.

Her Previous Dogs

K9 Cali, an American pit bull, was Wilson’s cadaver dog for many years, and she passed away in February of 2023. Cali was certified for human remains recovery work on both land and on the water. Wilson can recall cases where Cali was loaded into a boat on a river to find a loved one who had been involved in a boating accident. (Always showing compassion for the missing person and their family, Wilson prefers to use the term “loved one,” whether the individual is living or deceased and avoids terms like “body.”) When Cali alerted that she had found the scent she was looking for, divers found the remains right where Cali had indicated they would. Cali also found murder victims who had been buried, and her discoveries have been used in court cases. Apart from cadaver work, Cali was Wilson’s running partner, a therapy dog, and a flyball competitor.

Peggy Wilson and search and rescue dog, Cali
Peggy Wilson and Cali

K9 Jack, a golden retriever, spent years going on searches for missing children and adults. He had a special ability to find children with autism. Apart from his search and rescue work, Jack also did therapy work, including visiting veterans in the hospital and at home. He served as Wilson’s running partner on many 5K runs and was a champion at flyball.

Her New Dogs

Wilson’s two new dogs are rescues, and she met them both on the same day. Because she is so well known for the search and rescue work that she does, her coworkers and others in the community knew that she had recently lost her last working dog. So when Noodle, a one-and-a-half-year-old American Staffordshire terrier, came into her clinic, staff members immediately suggested the two might work well together.

Sherlock, also one-and-a-half, is a Labrador retriever/hound mix who was being trained through a program with the local prison and already had his Canine Good Citizen certificate. Both dogs were looking for their forever homes. At first, Wilson wasn’t sure about adopting new dogs. But it didn’t take her long to decide that she missed doing canine search and rescue work.

Search and rescue dogs, Noodle (left) and Sherlock (right)Noodle (left) and Sherlock (right)

Wilson decided to have both dogs come to the hospital on the same day. It would be the first time they would meet each other, and the first time she would meet each of them. If they got along, she told herself, she would take them both. She couldn’t bring herself to take one and not the other. Luckily, they got along famously from the very beginning and are now best friends. It’s been five months since the dogs went to live with Wilson, and they are starting to imprint on scent work. She is already seeing elements of their personality and interests that will likely make one of them a good candidate for cadaver work and the other one a good candidate for tracking and trailing.

How She Trains Them

Wilson has a lot of insight into how to best train her dogs for the work that they do. “The most important thing is learning your canine and listening to your canine,” she said. “Dogs do speak to those who listen.”

“The most important thing is learning your canine and listening to your canine.”

—Peggy Wilson

When doing search and rescue work, a dog is always trying to tell their handler something. Handlers who are not attuned to their dogs’ behavior will likely miss some of their cues. Wilson considers positive reinforcement to be an essential part of her training philosophy. She reports that she’s had fantastic results from this training technique and that she will never change it.

“Your dog works hard for you, so you should work hard for them,” she explained. This means finding what motivates them, whether it’s treats, toys, play, or just human affection and attention.

Search and rescue dogs practicing cadaver water search

There is no firm timeline for training a dog for search and rescue work. Some take less than six months, while others take a year and a half or more. It also depends on how much time the handler has to devote to the training.

Once a handler feels their dog is ready, they can seek certification from a number of different organizations, including NOCSAR, National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Search and Rescue Dogs of the United States (SARDUS), State Urban Search and Rescue Alliance (SUSAR), or National Narcotic Detector Dog Association (NNDDA), among others.

When deciding which type of work would be best for a particular dog (or if any type of work is appropriate), Wilson tries to see what each dog enjoys and what they want to stay engaged in. She looks at their personality, and the dog tells her what they are happy doing. She wants her working dogs to be excited and engaged the whole time and never feel forced to do anything. Even though search and rescue work is very serious and arduous work, it’s all a “big game” for the dogs, Wilson added, so it’s important to make sure it’s something they enjoy.

“Your dog works hard for you, so you should work hard for them.”

—Peggy Wilson

As part of their training, dogs and their handlers will decide together on a trained final response (TFR), which is the behavior the dog will use to show that they have found something of interest. Some dogs may sit or lie down, some may bark, some may run to their handler and give a high five. It’s important to reward this behavior in the moment, although it may need to be quickly and quietly given the seriousness of the situation. Once the dog is taken away from the scene, Wilson added, it is important to shower them with praise, treats, toys, play, affection, or whatever they prefer and make a “big party” out of it.

Another important part of the training is “blank” training. In this type of training, dogs won’t be able to find what they are looking for because it is not there. Handlers use this type of training to make sure dogs won’t false alert just to get a reward. It also helps prepare the dog mentally for the disappointment of not always finding something, since they won’t always find what they are looking for out in the field.

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The Emotional Toll

It is easy to see how working in search and rescue can be very emotionally challenging for both handler and canine. The handler can experience the stress of trying to find a missing loved one quickly, sometimes in difficult conditions. They may personally know the individual they are trying to find or they may have to work under the watchful eye of distraught family members hoping for good news. In some cases, an area search and rescue sadly becomes a cadaver search. In other cases, the loved one is never found, even after a long and exhaustive search.

As emotionally devastating as these outcomes can be for the handler, Wilson said that “every emotion the human has travels down the lead.” That means both the humans and the canines need an outlet for all the feelings they experience. For the canine, this can mean getting away from the scene and having a fun, positive “search” game with an immediate, high-value reward. Their other reward will be seeing their handler manage their own emotions and stress. This can involve debriefing with the rest of the search and rescue team and with their larger community for support. Both handler and canine also need to take time to unplug and spend time away from their search and rescue responsibilities to avoid burnout.

“When you see that family and you’re the team that found their loved one, that’s when you’re hooked for life.”

—Peggy Wilson

How to Get Started

If you want to get involved in search and rescue, Wilson recommends reaching out to your local search and rescue organization. “Search and rescue nationwide is strictly volunteer,” Wilson said, and there is always a need for more volunteers. Dogs can start training for search and rescue at any age, as long as they have the drive and interest and you can dedicate the time and energy to help them learn. Not all search and rescue work involves canine work, so you can still participate without having to train a dog to do it with you.

How to Help

As veterinary professionals, we can contribute to work like Wilson’s. By leveraging our expertise to promote positive training techniques and protect the health of search and rescue dogs in our communities, we can be a part of this important work. We can also help support our employees and colleagues who do participate in search and rescue efforts so that when duty calls, they feel empowered to drop what they are doing and go. Get started with the 2021 AAHA Working, Assistance, and Therapy Dog Guidelines at aaha.org/workingdog.

You do need to be prepared for difficult conditions (working in the middle of the night, long hours, hot weather, cold weather, swampy conditions, etc.), and you need to be willing to go on a moment’s notice. While it’s not an easy job, Wilson said the rewards can be great. “When you see that family and you’re the team that found their loved one, that’s when you’re hooked for life,” Wilson explained. Even if their loved one is deceased, giving the family closure is priceless.

Veterinary professionals have a lot of advantages in participating in canine work of this type. With their expert knowledge of canine health and behavior, they understand the importance of positive reinforcement and of observing dogs’ body language closely. Veterinary employers may be more understanding of the need to leave on short notice to assist in canine search and rescue efforts, and that has been Wilson’s experience. Those who have participated in other activities involving working dogs, such as canine therapy work, can transfer a lot of what they have learned to search and rescue work.

It is clear that Wilson feels great compassion for both the dogs she trains and the humans she works to help. Her dedication to serving families in their hour of need, treating dogs with respect and understanding, and sharing her knowledge and experience with her community is truly inspiring.

She gives all the credit to the dogs she works with for their loyalty and devotion.

“All they want to do is work hard for you,” she said. “They don’t get as long on this earth as they deserve.”

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Emily Singler, VMD, currently works as a veterinary writer, consultant, and mentor and enjoys writing for both pet owners and veterinary professionals. Her writing interests include public health, preventive medicine, the human–animal bond, and life as a working mom. She is the author of Pregnancy and Postpartum Considerations for the Veterinary Team. Find her at emilysinglervmd.com.

Photo credits: roibu/iStock via Getty Images Plus, Photos courtesy of Peggy Wilson, eAlisa/iStock via Getty Images Plus, ©AAHA/Robin Taylor, Photos courtesy of Keith Taylor

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