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Author Sarah Kirton
Sarah Kirton
Created on Nov 22nd, 2022
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Family Disaster Dogs 2023: Train Your Dog To Be A Superhero

Amber Higgins from Family Disaster Dogs chats to DeliveryRank about her extensive training experience with dogs and how you can turn your pooch into an FDD superhero!

Tell us about your professional journey involving dogs and the different areas of expertise?

I’ve always loved dogs. As a child I would bring home every stray dog I found. By nine years old I knew I wanted to work with dogs after my uncle showed me how his dogs did tricks and showed me how he trained them.

I started reading every dog book I could get my hands on and training the family's dogs. As a teenager, I rescued dogs from the city streets or dog pounds to train and rehome. I was fortunate to be able to go to work at a very large AKC show and boarding kennel in Hawaii when I was 17, working with about 100 dogs a day which began my lifetime doggy career.

From there I went to work at a security dog kennel to learn about working dogs and then at a veterinarian clinic to learn all I could about keeping dogs healthy. I chose not to be a veterinarian because I wanted to work with the living.

I moved to Texas from California. Having worked mainly with show dog breeders and groomers, I wanted to expand into the pet industry so I found work as a pet salon bather making $1.00 per dog! 40 dogs a day was great pay back then and the owner was a graduate of the only dog grooming school at the time. She was from California so we hit it off and she mentored me in pet dog grooming styles and management of pet salons.

She also bred mini schnauzers which she set me up to breed. My husband and I then expanded our home-based kennel to rescue pit bulls which we bred, showed in weight pulling, and rehomed as pets. I also offered dog obedience classes. That set the stage for me to breed dogs for the next 20 years with veterinarians making house calls because I couldn’t haul all my dogs to them.

We moved 15 retired adult dogs to Arkansas in 1989 and although I hadn't planned to work as much with dogs, word spread about me and my dogs. Then we joined the local volunteer fire department mainly to keep our property and community safe from fires. 

Eventually, I was asked to train a search dog for the fire department. At the time, there were only a handful of volunteer search dog teams in the country. Most search dogs were police dogs and the internet wasn’t everywhere yet. I researched all the breeds and training I could find and then decided the bloodhound was the best dog for the job.

The closest bloodhound pup I could find was two states away so we made the trip to get bloodhound Incredible Sue who was four months old. The fire department and county OEM coordinator then connected me to the sheriff department's master K9 trainer who also owned trained bloodhounds. He was switching over to the multi-purpose malinois breed. He took me under his wing and mentored me in police mantrailing bloodhounds and multi-purpose K9 training.

I had to have a malinois too (the breed was new) who I started training in fire excelerate detection. He also passed his remaining bloodhound onto me. After two years of training with my mentor, I was tested and certified with three dogs, including my 15-year-old daughter and her German Shepherd who I was training as my first K9SAR student. I went on to form a county search dog training squad with other volunteer firefighters and the OEM coordinator.

Did training or working with Search and Rescue Dogs transform your relationship with man’s best friend?

Yes, Incredible Sue taught me how incredible a dog can be. Although I was already considered an animal behaviorist and trainer, I always credit the dogs for the knowledge they’ve given me. Sue taught me to trust my dog and how to read a dog when a dog works naturally without a handler's direction. Plus all the training we received as part of the fire department and county search squad gave me a purpose I hadn’t realized a dog could have other than as a security or police dog.

I bred Sue along with my mentors working bloodhound Homer and, using the internet, I connected with other bloodhound breeders to raise and train working bloodhounds. For about ten years I started puppies in mantrailing, board, and trained plus donated puppies to other search and rescue volunteers around the country. Two dogs went to Canada and one to South America to help start mantrailing dogs there.

After Sue retired, I moved to Oregon with two bloodhounds, my daughter, and her shepherd. I went to college for writing because I’ve always loved to write. As a hobby, I was published in newspapers, and magazines and started a few novels before the internet.

In Oregon, I managed a couple of grooming salons and opened my own award-winning pet salon. I learned about tsunami preparedness in Oregon. When the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan I was awakened by tsunami warning sirens at 3 am. I wasn’t living in the tsunami zone so there was no need to evacuate, although the whole town did have to evacuate I was able to watch the tsunami disaster unfold on TV.

As I sat there with my bloodhound thinking of all the search and rescue scenarios unfolding it dawned on me that family dogs can rescue and find family members when search teams are overwhelmed. People may have to help themselves.

That night I began writing Family Disaster Dogs lessons with bloodhound Daisy. I realized a book would take years to publish so I started a blog as I penned the book. The blog was able to reach people sooner. Over the years since the big one hit Japan, the blog has helped train families and search dog teams worldwide. The response prompted me to write the children's book, “My Puppy Can Find Me.” Readers' requests led to the “Evacuation with Your Dog's Help” book and then writing the book “Start Mantrailing” which helped me stay busy through Covid19 lockdowns.

What doggy character traits are needed to be a superhero FDD?

Every dog who loves its human family has the natural protective and family pack instinct to be a superhero Family Disaster Dog. Love and the bond of a dog to its pack or human are what makes any dog breed, age, or size have the desire to help us or protect the home.

All dogs will search for their human and family if separated. If the dog isn’t locked in a house or yard they’ll follow the human they love but we lock and leash them up. So it makes sense if a family member walks away from the home or campsite, and away from the dog that once the dog is able or turned loose it will try to follow the pack member who’s missing. That natural trait is what trains a family dog to find a missing family member.

Dogs want to help us, they follow us around and wait for us to tell them how they can help. FDD's are like service dogs who are ready and willing to come to our assistance. With an FDD we use this natural trait a dog has to help us to its advantage. Each dog can help in some way and a dog doesn't have to learn all the lessons in the Family Disaster Dogs book to save a person's life.

For example, some dogs are naturally better retrievers, they love to catch a ball and bring it back. They would be great at learning objects by name to bring a water bottle or first aid kit to a trapped family member. Most dogs can carry extra evacuation supplies for family members who cannot carry their own, such as the disabled and toddlers. Then other family members don't have to carry two loaded 72-hour packs as recommended by emergency management for us to have ready for evacuation.

Each dog has individual abilities they can bring to the rescue. Owners know their own dogs best so I ask them to think about what the dog can do for them to be ready for a disaster and their own unique situation because every part of the world is prone to different disasters. Then we train for what best suits that household.

How do you work with clients – 2 and 4-legged?

I work with clients online and offline for family disaster dog training, problem-solving, mantrailing search dog work or sport, obedience, and manners or general advice. I offer email and phone consultations where I coach dog owners every step of the way to train their dogs.

I train in person by request and workshops plus board and train where I train the dog and show the owners how to handle them. In Oregon, I was public speaking at disaster expos. I recently moved back to the Mountain Home, Arkansas area, where I have land to train more dogs. I'm also helping the American Rettungshunde Sport Association (ARSA) bring Search and Rescue Sport to the USA with seminars and training events.

At what age do you recommend dogs be recruited for training purposes?

The age depends on the training. Puppies as young as eight weeks old start puppy kindergarten and old dogs love to learn new tricks which helps them to live a longer life by having a purpose and exercise. I tailor all training to the owner and dog or household.

Please tell us your favorite, most memorable story concerning an FDD?

One of my favorite stories is of Daisy Mae, a senior pug from Washington state who became an FDD at the age of 12. She helped her human mom and grandmother be prepared for disasters including carrying her own doggy evacuation backpack. Even though Daisy has crossed the rainbow bridge she’s still a well-known social media dog influencer to this day. Pictured is her FDD certificate.

Want to find out more about Family Disaster Dogs, visit https://www.familydisasterdogs.com/

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