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By Casey Christie / The Californian
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By Courtesy of Billy Monahan
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By Courtesy of Billy Monahan
BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
The experience of being trapped for days in a building that has collapsed following a powerful earthquake must rate as one of fate's most cruel nightmares.
But sometimes, against all odds, those who have been entombed by falling debris are found by rescue dogs trained specifically to locate living victims of such natural disasters as earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis.
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To learn more about the nonprofit National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, and to meet other search dogs, go to searchdogfoundation.org.
One of those amazing dogs lives right here in Kern County and has just received the American Kennel Club's 12th annual Humane Fund Award for Canine Excellence -- in the Search and Rescue Dog category.
The dog's name is Hunter, and he's a sweet, energetic 8-year-old border collie from Tehachapi.
"He is one of our most valuable tools," said Billy Monahan, Hunter's handler and a captain in the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
"These dogs are trained for constant readiness," Monahan said. "You never know when you're going to be called to respond."
The national award honors five dogs each year that have made significant contributions in various categories: as companions, law enforcers, service dogs, therapy dogs -- and of course, search and rescue.
"The dogs we're honoring with the ACE award show the impact a single dog can make in a community," said American Kennel Club spokeswoman Lisa Peterson.
Indeed, the impact Hunter has made can be defined by the difference between life and death.
Together, Hunter and Monahan have searched miles of flattened buildings and structures littered with such hazards as broken glass, splintered wood and exposed nails.
Earlier this year they were deployed to Japan after that nation suffered a massive earthquake and tsunami. There they worked through aftershocks, tsunami warnings, freezing temperatures and snow.
In January 2010, the pair were in Haiti following that country's deadly earthquake. It was there that Hunter detected and alerted Monahan to live human scent while searching the debris of a four-story collapsed building. As a result of his efforts, rescuers were able to pull three girls, still alive, from the rubble.
The man and his loyal dog didn't have the chance to stick around for the rescue, which occurred several hours after Hunter pinpointed the location.
"We are the search team," Monahan said. "The rest of the team rescues those who are trapped. Without them breaking rocks and removing debris one five-gallon bucket at a time, we wouldn't have a live victim"
When he's far from home in places like Haiti or Hurricane-stricken Louisiana, Monahan said it's the support he receives from his fiancee, Tami Spanel, that allows him to "put 110 percent of my effort and the dog's effort into finding live victims.
"She's my rock," he said.
An employee of the Kern County Fire Department, Spanel's love and pride in the amazing search dog is clearly evident.
She noted that Hunter has also been named Dog Fancy's Hero Dog of the Year, and last year was awarded the Firefighter of the Year award by the L.A. County Fire Department, becoming the first ever non-human recipient.
Like a proud father, Monahan says Hunter is unique, one of a kind. But Wilma Melville, the founder of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, the Ojai-based nonprofit that trained Hunter and gave him to Monahan, said Hunter is simply very well-trained.
"I'm delighted for both Bill and Hunter. They deserve all the accolades they've received," Melville said. "But if another one of our dogs had been in his place, those people would have been found. That's why the training is so important."
The foundation has trained 131 teams so far, but a search dog's service usually ends around age 10, so many have retired. Seventy-two teams, including Hunter and Monahan, are currently active.
"There were four of our teams in Kern County, but they have all retired," Melville said. "They will be replaced."
Fortunately for possible future victims, Hunter has about two years of service left. Then he will retire to a happy-go-lucky life with Monahan and Spanel in the mountains of Tehachapi. No one can say whether he will miss the life of a rescue dog.
Hunter declined to comment.