Rubble Rabble: My Introduction to Urban Search and Rescue

Urban Playground

I grew up as a fearless wild child of the South West Rocky Mountains.  I spent a lot of my childhood riding roller coasters, scrambling up tall trees, jumping from boulder to boulder, and quite a few other reckless activities I probably should not have attempted.

Last week, when I stood on top of the rubble pile, my head spun and my stomach dropped to my feet. I could not believe how frightening it was to stand on top of a mountain of broken concrete and enormous pipes. The entire scene looked like a huge plate of penne pasta tossed with potato chips.  The pile towered above a city bus as if it were carelessly discarded by a gigantic toddler on top of his scattered toys.

Yeah, it was scary. One slip and human or canine could disappear into a jagged concrete crevice to nowhere.

Urban Agility

Search and Rescue dogs are very agile, but they are not born with the skills to carefully navigate rubble.  The agility course at the urban training center in Maryland is like a competition agility course on steroids.

It includes several of the recognizable elements including an A-Frame, teeter totter, and tunnel with some changes.  The tunnel has corners and dead ends, the teeter-totter is huge, and the high plank is HIGH!

There are several elements not regularly included in our wilderness agility course.  Added elements include a ladder on its side, a slippery surface plank with pvc pipes laid side by side, a ladder leaned up the side of a very high platform, a mini pile of rubble, and a section of chain link fence connecting two platforms (Grom really hated that one)

On the rubble, many wilderness dogs who are quite comfortable trotting across a downed tree high above a deep creek stopped dead in front of a small gap in the rubble he could easily hop over. To the dogs, this was a frightening canyon. Very few dogs are aware they have back feet, they just follow whatever the front feet are doing. Elements on the urban agility course were there to help them think about the placement of each of their legs.

Wilderness VS Urban

Hidden Subjects

Our wilderness search dog, Grom, really likes to reach out and touch his hidden volunteers. That isn’t so difficult out in the woods.  Put someone inside a rubble pile and the game completely changes.  Urban rescue dogs look for people trapped in collapsed structures.  Often, they cannot see or touch those they are looking for. This task is far more difficult for the dogs for many reasons.

Scent Conditions

How the scent travels throughout a fallen structure can provide many challenges for the rescue dog team. Scent can do some very strange things swirling around and inside a man made structure.  Not only to urban dogs have to figure this out, but they must be very accurate. A human team will follow a dog who has indicated to dig out and rescue the trapped person, a very challenging task when time may be everything.

Clausterphobic spaces

Dogs can be scared of the dark and small spaces just like we can.  Imagine crawling around on the insides of strange buildings and squeezing through a labyrinth all alone in the dark.  This is what urban dogs bravely do.

Rewarding the Dog

Grom lives for his reward at the end of the search.  He loves to get petted, pulled, and pushed around by the found person who is rewarding him with a game of tug.  Out on the rubble pile, it is too dangerous for a rolling fun game of tug or fetch. Advanced urban dogs do not even get much human interaction from the person they found since they need to simulate they are trapped under impossibly heavy cement.

Play reward is limited basically to tug since they can be shoved out of a crack or small hole as the reward. Urban dogs are satisfied with grabbing their magically appearing toy and giving it a few nice tugs before winning it. Wow!


In wilderness search and rescue, we like to use something called a recall-refind so as not to scare the person and to keep the dog and person safe.  This means the dog finds the person, returns to the handler and indicates with a bark or jump or something, then leads the handler back to the found person.

Urban rescue dogs are typically trained with a stay and bark indication.  It is far too dangerous for the dog to cross back over the rubble pile with all of his excitement and go to the handler. I cannot imagine trying to follow a leaping dog back to the found person either, we humans are just too slow, heavy, and clumsy. It may also be a concern for the dog to refind the person, expecially if the scent conditions change.

Not only do the dogs stay and bark at a hole, but they do so for a very long time. They must stay and be loud so they can wait for slow human to work their way up the pile and mark the spot where the dog is indicating. Imagine if the dog has actually found a way into the structure and indicates there!  A good long series of barks allows their human team mates to better pinpoint the location of the find.


Handlers can’t always be up on the pile with the dog. We can use our brain to figure out how to properly cover the rubble pile using the wind and other factors from on the ground. Directing the dog as if he had a remote control is a great way to direct him to success. It is a must to be able to do that from afar.  Check out how this is taught on my former Directionals Blog Post.


Disaster dogs are out there searching due to Hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, land slides, and other catastrophes. Their workplace is dangerous littered with broken glass, jagged metal, wobbly surfaces, chemicals and fumes.

Dehydration is another concern. The water sitting around at an urban disaster can be contanamated with gas, oil, sewage and other chemicals.  Heat reflects off the rubble, and there may be little shade. Handlers must constantly monitor their dog for hydration and overheating.

Anyone want to invent doggie helmets?

Set up a rubble pile problem

Since we are a wilderness team out to experience the urban course, many of our dogs were started out with the lost person just sitting on the rubble.  They can encourage the dog to climb up the pile to them and interact and play with the dog. Some of our more advanced dogs tried to find a completely hidden subject.

Bark Barrels are often used to train dogs to look for a concealed subject.  A custom lid is designed to let out various amounts of scent and a special door may even be included to push the reward toy  through. Cool Beans!

Urban Disaster Search and Rescue dogs play a vital role in successful healing and recovery after a disaster. Our paws are raised to them.

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