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Seabees Help Build New Search Dog Training Center

The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation is building a new training center and is getting help from local military men and women with its construction.

The Seabees of Port Hueneme are working in Santa Paula, about 20 miles from Naval Base Ventura County. The construction battalion, is usually a lot farther away building projects around the world.

This time they’re rolling up their sleeves for a project with the search dog foundation and teaching the newest Seabees all the intricate details of construction.

“Where we’re going to be deploying to here in the future, a lot of what you see right now is what we’re going to be doing. So this just gives us an opportunity to strengthen our skill sets, to train our newer Seabees that come in and just kind of at the end of the day just make us better at what we do,” said Frank Queenlacombe, chief equipment operator.

The search dog group provides the materials and the Seabees bring the manpower and heavy equipment.

“I just love seeing the military out here training because with Disaster Search, it’s all about the training. That’s why we’re building this national training center so teams from all over country can come and get that experience they need instead of learning on the job, they’re learning before they have to go out the door to deploy. Well the military is doing the same thing here. They’re getting that training that they need to go out the door,” said Debra Tosch, the foundation executive director.

The latest project will create two areas with shade for the dogs and handlers at Search City. When finished, the city will be a full-scale training center. It will look like a disaster, like a tornado or earthquake just hit.

“We’re going to have a convenience store with shelves and food all over the place and shopping carts. And there’s going to be a trainer park that has been destroyed. There’s a parking lot with overturned cars. There’s going to be facades here where you just see the front of the building, and behind it, it’s totally collapsed,” said Tosch.

Over the summer, the first three buildings were completed with Army and Navy men and women signing their names by the front door of a house.

“Just think of the Romans. The things they build still stand the test of time here. I don’t know, will this straight structure stand the test of time? I’m hoping so, it’s built by Seabees, it should,” said Queenlacombe.

Just as every detail counts when it comes to building structures, the dogs need specific training to learn how to find people trapped after a disaster.

Down the hill from the work site, dogs and their handlers are already busy training in focus scenting. That’s where the dogs learn to follow their nose. It’s the most important tool to help get people out of a disaster site alive.

“Don’t listen to your eyes or your ears, we try to call it off the scent and they just ignore us and put their nose in and bark. That’s what we want. That’s what’s going to make them a success on the rubble,” said Sonja Heritage, the master trainer.

During one of the focus scenting exercises, a trainer playing the victim picks a container and hides. It’s up to the dog to find where the trainer is just by scent.

When the victim is found, the dog gets a toy as a reward.

A separate training area looks like an agility course for competition, but it’s serious business. Dogs learn how to keep their footing on ladders and other obstacles they could encounter when in the middle of chaos.

The dogs then graduate to a 10,000-square foot rubble pile which has mounds of cement blocks, rebar and wood pallets.

The dogs can run around with ease on the rubble which keeps them safe as they look for disaster victims.

Whether on four legs or on two, the skills learned in Santa Paula will help save lives around the world.

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