Humane Rescue Alliance

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Humane Rescue Alliance

From Rescue to Potential Rescuer

HRA Shelter Dog Trains for Search and Rescue Work

Labrador retrievers are pretty popular dogs. And there’s a reason for that. They tend to be happy, outgoing companions who get along well with a variety of people and animals. Still, they’re not for everyone. Labs tend to mature later than other dogs, sometimes retaining puppy-like qualities well into adulthood. And their exuberance and energy can be too much for many people.

Bongo is a case in point. This handsome black Lab arrived at the Humane Rescue Alliance (HRA) from a partner shelter in Miami the last week in December. At 11 months old, he was “all puppy”—and a very large one at that. He was extremely energetic and seemed capable of going and going and going (think Energizer bunny) before he was ready to take a break. He also loved his toys, always carrying one in his mouth or on the lookout for one.

Behavior and Training staff pose with Bongo outside the Humane Rescue Alliance

Despite his friendly nature, Bongo proved to be just too much dog for potential adopters. And the longer he remained in the shelter, the more frustrated (and less adoptable) he became. Our Behavior and Training staff got to work, going to great lengths searching for solutions for this special dog. As they explored the options, it occurred to them that the qualities that made Bongo less attractive to potential adopters were the same qualities that might make him a good search and rescue dog.

Enter Ann Brody Cove, a long-time HRA donor*, who referred Behavior and Training director Alexandra Dilley to the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation. The mission of this non-profit, non-governmental organization based in Santa Paula, California, is to strengthen disaster response in America by recruiting rescued dogs and partnering them with firefighters and other first responders to find people buried alive in the wreckage of disasters.

Watch Bongo's initial search and rescue evaluation.


Dilley contacted the foundation, which asked her to submit a video to assess Bongo’s innate level of interest in toys. Bongo successfully passed the first round of tests, leading the foundation to arrange for an assessor from the D.C. Fire Department’s canine unit to evaluate Bongo off-site. The evaluator took Bongo to a rubble pile in the city to see how he would handle going in and out of tunnels, jumping up on uneven surfaces in search of a tossed ball. Bongo stayed focused on the ball which was dropped into a pile of rubble, and alert barked when he could not get to it. He then figured out how to jump into the dark and somewhat deep hole to retrieve his ball, and pulled against the tension of his leash to go “save” it. After these tests, the assessor declared Bongo a natural for search and rescue work. And based on the glowing report, the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation accepted him into their training program.

Bongo boarding flight to CaliforniaOn January 27, Bongo boarded a flight to California, the first—very large—step into a promising new life. According to foundation’s canine recruitment manager, Sylvia Stoney, he is adjusting well to his role as a trainee. “He has lots of great energy and is a big hit with our staff,” she says.

Although it’s too early to say whether or not Bongo will ultimately graduate from training school as an official search and rescue dog, early signs are definitely promising. We’ll keep you posted.


*The Ann Brody Cove Fund was established to provide low-cost and free medical care in our Medical Center to families in need of financial assistance. This service keeps pets in the loving homes where they belong, while keeping space free in our adoption centers for pets who are truly homeless.