When a child is lost in a Southern California rural area or the search is on for bodies in the wake of a disaster--the Los Angeles Fire Department Search and Rescue team turns to a playful canine named Bella and trainer Deresa Teller.
The 5-year-old female border collie--just one of about 50 certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency nationally--works out of the Canoga Park station with Teller, an 18-year department veteran who has trained dogs for 30 years.
“I got interested after the Mexico earthquake,” Teller said, referring to the Mexico City disaster in which dogs helped find buried victims.
In the three years since Bella has been certified, she has helped authorities in emergency situations such as the Northridge earthquake and the federal building bombing in Oklahoma City.
Though calls requiring Bella’s services occur only about once a month, training takes between 35 and 100 hours for the same period, Teller said.
The dog’s skills need to be sharp for four yearly tests in wilderness rescue. She also has to pass a cadaver-finding test every two years.
“So much of the training is the trainer being trained, too,” she said.
Teller selected a border collie because of the breed’s playfulness and high intelligence. Labradors and golden retrievers are also popular breeds selected for training.
“The biggest thing we look for is a play drive,” Teller said. “I mean an extremely high drive--ready to play until they drop.”
Bella began her training as a pup with basic obedience lessons. Only after she mastered commands such as “speak” did Teller and Bella move on to “search.”
Rescue dogs never actually think they are finding bodies or live humans, said Teller. The dogs are trained to earn rewards by using their strong sense of smell to find a toy such as a rubber ball. They later learn to associate the smell of the ball with the odor of humans.
Bella’s initial training included finding her ball in a wooden box. Bella was instructed to “speak” after finding it.
A dog initially is rewarded immediately after finding the ball, but as training progresses, the reward is postponed until the dog finds the toy and barks for a minimum of 30 seconds.
Bella’s more advanced training included bigger boxes in which the ball and a person were hidden behind a closed gate--simulating a trapped victim in a disaster site.
To teach Bella to associate finding the ball with finding a person, Teller put a person and the ball in boxes or large barrels. In this manner, Bella learned to associate the smell of the ball and humans.
Eventually, only the person was put in the barrel. But when Bella found the person, the ball was thrown to her as a reward--making her think she found her toy.
To simulate real disaster sites such as the Northridge earthquake, the boxes were hidden under increasingly bigger piles of debris at construction sites or behind stacked wooden pallets, Teller said.
Examples of Bella’s work include finding a young boy who had been missing from home in the Agua Dulce area, finding the corpse of a woman who died in her Studio City home during the earthquake and identifying three sites where bodies remained in the Oklahoma City bombing rubble.
“It was the most significant experience I’ve ever had, other than having my children,” Teller said of the Oklahoma City mission--where she said she was overwhelmed by residents’ treatment of rescuers as heroes.