POPAYAN – The K-9 Search and Rescue Team

I would normally stick to one story per town but everyone needs a fluff piece – and it doesn’t get fluffier than Popayan Fire Department’s  wonderful K-9 team who invited me to join them for a morning’s training session and a good walkies.

K-9 Team

From left to right – Captain Osmara Trochez, Fireman Edgar Truque, Fireman Mauricio Bermudez, and Carlos Hurtado with Milor, Tesla and Aslan….and me!

Aslan and Tesla, both Labrador/boxer crosses and  Milor, a Malinois Belgium Shepherd, showed me how they were training to become certified search and rescue dogs in this earthquake-prone region.  Their owners/trainers Osmara, Edgar, Mauricio and Carlos, clearly adored their pups and Edgar even told me that Milor has a fire dog pedigree so when he first arrived in Popayan he was welcomed with a formal salute at the airport.  At just a year old he was certainly full of beans and eager to join in the games and I was keen to find out how a dog is made ready to be part of search and rescue missions.

The training began with a walk to consume some of the excess manic energy before we reached a wooded area in the forest.  Here the dogs were tied up, their trainers formed a circle and were put through their paces with a simple catch game with the dogs toys, blowing whistles to test reflexes.

K-9 Training

Training the trainers

It was explained that the trainers needed training as much as the dogs. It was also important to ensure the dogs were never subjected to any stress with the sessions kept fun and rewarding.   One by one the dogs were introduced to the game playing a sort of piggy in the middle….doggy in the middle you might say!

Milor - K-9 Training
Milor outsmarting everyone at ‘doggy in the middle’

Once the toy had been thrown a few times, the   trainer would drop to the floor clutching the toy.  The dog was then expected to stand by the trainer and bark before being rewarded with lots of fuss and a game of tug with the toy.

K-9 training
Trainer drops to the ground with toy

Gradually the circle became wider before finally the trainer goes  off into the woods to hide.  It was fascinating to see the progression the dogs  made from a simple game to more realistic scenarios.

 Adopting a similar process the dogs then had to search for the trainer who was on the floor clutching the toy.  When found , the dog needed to bark before the reward was given.

I tested out my acting abilities by becoming a guest victim – I play an unconscious person extremely well if I do so say myself.  However being unfamiliar, the 2 younger dogs were a little confused about what to do once they had found me!  Intensely loud sniffing ensued but they assumed that since I wasn’t their trainer they were not required to bark.

My acting abilities being put to the test with Tesla

After the training session there was a debrief and it was agreed that my presence was helpful as it allowed the trainers to understand the dogs ‘ progress by using someone unfamiliar.  With new smells and different clothes I certainly threw some of them off.  All except Tesla who, wiser and older, knew exactly what to do.

K-9 Debrief

Debrief post training to run through lessons learnt

So why use dogs for search and rescue?  Their incredible sense of smell allows  search and rescue dogs to locate those buried by rubble with a high level of accuracy.  Even with the ever-increasing advancement of technology, dogs can be far quicker at finding people due to their agility on difficult terrain and their intense search drive.

Popayan has 11 fire dogs in total, they normally train at home for 2 hours everyday but with 4 hours a week at the station in a group.  Dogs can begin training as early as 8 weeks but in practice, it takes an average of two to three years to train a dog for mission readiness.

Obedience and Dexterity are key requirements in ensuring safe search and rescue for trainers and dogs.  When ready the dogs and trainers face examination by the International Search and Rescue Dog Organisation (IRO).  The IRO is a non-profit organisation with an internationally recognised framework and strict selection process.  They also dispatch expert judges around the world to assess a number of competences during testing events.

IRO-certified dogs can be trained in Area search, Tracking, Rubble, Avalanche or Water rescue – water rescue being a particular surprise to me!

The dog teams can compete in all categories, but not all are essential where dogs are to be deployed in specific scenarios. Area search and rubble being the most relevant to the K-9 team at Popayan.

Primary testing involves a suitability test which must be completed ahead of the more focused exams.  These evaluate the overall abilities of the dog and trainer including dexterity, strength of will and other prerequisites.  Having made the grade, the dog is entitled to carry the IRO quality label and is ready for deployment. To enter IRO’s highest testing level, a dog must be at least 20 months old, and no older than eight to be declared mission ready.

All international IRO testing events are assessed according to the International Testing Standards for Search and Rescue Dogs (IPO-R).  I reviewed this document to gauge the breakdown for each stage and  it was a really interesting read.  The tests are broken down as follows:

Obedience and Dexterity

The initial test evaluates both the handler and the dog and includes:

  • Evaluation of gun sensitivity

  • On-Leash Heeling / Off-Leash Heeling

  • Going through a Group of People

  • Down with Recall

  • Change of Position

  • Exercise Retrieve on the Flat

  • Exercise Carry and Hand-over (where the dog is picked up and handed to someone else)

  • Exercise Down under Distraction

  • Exercise Traversing unpleasant Material

  • Exercise Tunnel with Tube

  • Exercise Traversing an elevated rigid wooden Board

  • Exercise Distance Control

  • Exercise Directability at a Distance

Meeting these standards ensures that the dog is capable of performing obediently and with dexterity even if there are loud noises, large distances between the trainer and dog or groups of other people and other dogs.  The dog should be solely focused on the task at hand and not distracted.

In addition to the above, more bespoke tests are given for each of the specific training categories at various stages of development -:

Tracking, Area, Rubble

  • Unstable Plank

  • Swing

  • Ladder

  • Execution of Tracking

  • Execution of Area Search

  • Execution of Rubble Search


  • Following Ski Tracks in deep Snow

  • Transportability

  • Execution of Biological Location


  • Execution of Mantrailing


  • Distance Swim

  • Mounting and Riding on a Surfboard

  • Retrieving from the Water, throwing from Boat

  • Transport by Boat

  • Bringing a Line starting from the Shore

  • Bringing a Rescue Device starting from the Shore

  • Rescuing a Person starting from the Shore

  • Rescuing a Person starting from a Boat

Watching some of the YouTube videos of IRO tests being carried out, these dogs are brilliant and its clear why they would be an asset to any search and rescue team.

Bath time

A well earned cool off after training

My day with the team was great fun but the reality of what we’re doing hits home when Jenny Delgado recalls some of the recent tragedies which occurred in the area.  Rosas is a town located in the south-western Cauca province about an hours drive from Popayan. Unfortunately landslides are all too common in Colombia particularly during the rainy season and when combined with illegal housing perched on steep hillsides , can have deadly results.  In the early hours of Sunday 21st April 2019, the town was hit by a mudslide burying at least eight homes.

Dogs were deployed to search for survivors in the wake of the tragedy but at least 28 people were killed.

Two years previous to this in April 2017, more than 250 people were killed when a landslide hit the town of Mocoa, in the Putumayo province.  With climate change an ever-present threat and weather becoming more unpredictable – training for these type of events is essential.  Which is what make s the work of the Popayan K-9 team so fantastic.

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