How do dogs carry out rescues in disasters?


Back on 27 July last year, it was a hot summer day with temperatures reaching 33 degrees Celsius and flooding almost everywhere in Zhengzhou, Henan Province and the surrounding countryside. Rescue workers from Peaceland Foundation were also throwing themselves into this flood relief effort.


(Henan Inundation, July 2021)


“A dog is trapped there. Let’s help!” Zhuzi (祝子) shouted when he spotted a dog struggling in the water during a patrol in Henan inundation. As a search and rescue dog trainer and an emergency responder for Peaceland Foundation, Zhuzi places extra importance on the lives of animals in his emergency rescue work.

(a Dog Rescued during Henan Inundation, July 2021)



The start of the journey


Before joining Peaceland Foundation, Zhuzi worked in pet adoption and charity institutions for about ten years. During that period, he studied search and rescue dog training in the United States and Mexico and invited foreign training experts to China to run similar programs. He has also used online resources such as Rescues2theRescue ( This website promotes training dogs from animal rescue shelters as search and rescue dogs that can look for people missing in a disaster or accident. It provides a wealth of knowledge, from determining a dog's personality to basic training steps and strategies.


Dogs rescued by humans could one day be ready to help people. Zhuzi put this idea into practice. Among his five dogs, two were picked up from the road, and the other two named Heidou (means black bean) and Leo were adopted after being abandoned by their previous owners. “Their former hosts had their difficulties,” Zhuzi expressed his understanding while talking about Heidou’s pre-owner, a 50-year-old lady who bought him but was unable to keep him company due to her health condition. Heidou’s overexcited behaviour affected the lady’s sleeping quality and contributed to her high blood pressure. But for Zhuzi, Heidou and Leo’s energetic spirit is a natural gift for being a rescue dog. So he adopted them and trained them by himself. The Henan flood was the first time that Zhuzi took them on a real-life mission.



Operation in flood relief


Search and rescue dogs are trained to find people in the field or inside collapsed buildings. They can be instructed to search for any people or to track a specific person when provided with the person’s scent profile (from clothes or bedding). However, the actual search situation in a disaster area is much more complex than in training.


The team received a request to locate a missing person who had last been caught on camera walking into a culvert. When rescuers and dogs arrived in the area, Zhuzi realized that a rescue operation could not be planned based on photographs.  Due to the terrain, all the rubbish brought by the flooding had piled up around the culvert. A strong odour permeated the intended search area. This unexpected and destructive smell could have clouded the dogs' judgement and made the search more difficult. After several hours of work, the dogs responded as if someone had been in the area but were unable to provide any more details to determine where the person was. Another problem that Zhuzi found was that the dogs had not been trained to search for bodies. As a result, they were also unable to answer whether anyone was buried underneath.


In addition to these difficulties, Zhuzi appreciated the teamwork in this flood rescue. Prior to any operations, there were team members who researched information such as topography and weather, kept updated with people who posted requests for help, identified appropriate rescue targets and managed the team’s supplies and shelter. When almost everyone is asking for help, volunteers can be running around like headless chicken without adequate preparation and clear assessment beforehand. Ensuring the effectiveness and efficiency of rescue operations requires the cooperation of everyone in the group. Although search and rescue dog normally don’t train with a professional emergency response team, in disasters they are required to work together, and the dog trainers are expected to be a responsible team player.


(Rescue in Henan Inundation, July 2021)



Future training


In the future, Zhuzi hopes to recruit more people with the same passion and perseverance to train rescue dogs together. Even qualified rescue dogs should be trained regularly. As well as maintaining professional competence, training also fosters a bond between human and dog. But this is not just the job of the dog trainer. In order to practice finding people, someone has to go into hiding. People of different ages and genders must hide in different places so that the dog doesn't think the task is to find just one person.


"Dog rescue training can only be done better when more people are involved." He wants more people to get involved and help those in need.


On the other hand, Zhuzi also wants to set up a team to do more professional animal rescue. He has found that where flooding occurs, especially in rural areas, stranded people can be moved, but most domestic animals have a hard time escaping. This is not only a loss to the affected people, but also makes it more difficult to prevent epidemics after a disaster. He hopes that in the future it will be possible to reduce the number of casualties among domestic animals and wildlife in extreme weather.



Off duty, a dog lover for life

(Zhuzi’s dogs, July 2021)


In daily life, Zhuzi loves to be surrounded by those furry creatures and treats them as sport partners when camping, swimming or even mountain climbing. For example, last July, he travelled with 17 dogs (including those he temporarily looked after for others) to Yushu, one of the Tibetan autonomous prefectures in Qinghai Province. From Zhuzi’s perspective, all dogs are like his families each with unique identity. Back at home, he rented a courtyard specifically for them to live in a comfortable environment.


Author: Liu Haoxing

Editor: Li Ling, Li Tiange