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Israeli K9 search and rescue training program turns pets into protectors

Ears perked, Jane cautiously approaches a pile of “rubble” before letting out an excited bark. From between the cement blocks, 17-year-old volunteer Gal Inbari reaches a hand and gently pets Jane on the back, praising her for finding him.

The drill, organized by dog trainer Nitzan Tal, is part of a new initiative known as Project Locate.

Based in Kibbutz Ashdot Yakov, the program trains domestic dogs to locate individuals amid the rubble left behind by natural disasters — particularly earthquakes. The dogs also learn to find illegal infiltrators or missing people. But more than providing animal training, Project Locate helps participants build self-reliance and preparedness skills while empowering and bringing together the community.

“Based on the wind direction, we want to send her head-on into the smell,” Tal had explained to Gil Shaked, Jane’s handler. “Spin her in a half-circle to disorient her and then send her.”

With a command of “search,” Jane took off, successfully navigating the challenging terrain. After several minutes of searching, Jane located Inbari.

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Shaked took his time walking over to give her a treat and affirm her hard work, emphasizing the importance of patience in a real natural disaster scenario where unstable and dangerous terrain can limit movement.

Rescue dog Jane finds volunteer Gal Inbari as part of the Project Locate training program near Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov, spring of 2023. (Shanie Roth Photography)

The kibbutz’s head of security, Miki Harel, conceived of Project Locate following a recent security incident when three Palestinians illegally crossed the West Bank border into the fields of Ashdot Yaakov. Bedouin trackers called to the scene were unable to identify the footprints beneath the carpet of autumn leaves. Harel requested the army deploy specially trained dogs from Oketz, the elite IDF K-9 unit, but he was denied. Instead, the battalion stationed in the area patrolled the field throughout the night. The infiltrators were ultimately found only the following morning.

Harel subsequently reached out to contacts in Oketz and was put in touch with Tal, who was a highly-qualified rescue dog training specialist and had previously been the commander of the unit’s rescue dog team.

The project’s launch five months ago was also driven by the understanding that Israel’s location on the Syrian African Rift makes a 6.5-magnitude earthquake likely at some point in the coming decades. In the aftermath of natural disasters, the roads may not be accessible, and when there are illegal infiltrators, the army will always be instructed to attend to major cities first. In Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov, only a kilometer (.6 miles) away from Jordan and the Green Line separating Israel and the West Bank, self-reliance can save lives.

Concrete jungle

Nitzan Tal of Project Locate with training dogs, in spring of 2023. (Shanie Roth Photography)

The training takes place at an unfinished building site utilized by all rescue units in Israel, covering an extensive area of 140,000 square meters (roughly 35 acres). The area serves as a poignant reminder of the potential for disastrous events while providing an ideal training ground for rescuers.

Though relatively new, Project Locate is already being remodeled into a more broadly available private program called “Nitzan,” after its head dog trainer Tal, and will still be based in the area and use the same training site.

The program aims to continue to address lessons learned from security incidents and foster a sense of preparedness and independence in the civilian population. Tal, the driving force behind the initiative, has a particular interest in working with at-risk youth and individuals with disabilities.

“Every dog possesses the potential to be trained in search and rescue; it is merely a matter of dedicating the necessary time,” says Tal, whose time in Oketz saw her serve as a combat soldier and commanding officer in charge of dog training.

Following her military discharge, Tal obtained certification as a therapy dog trainer and private dog trainer, and now practices both jobs.

Hen Ben Shitrit, a fellow former commander in Oketz who is certified to use therapy dogs for training and manages a therapy center that utilizes her own dogs, commends Tal’s work.

“I see great importance in Nitzan’s project. It is an additional force in the field that will support the community during times of crisis,” Ben Shitrit says.

Going where no man can

Tal’s experience encompasses a wide range of scenarios, from navigating through building collapses in Israel to confronting the aftermath of the 2019 Brumadinho dam disaster in Brazil.

Oded Raveh and his dog Fifi participate in training as part of Project Locate, spring of 2023. (Shanie Roth Photography)

Tal has witnessed firsthand the abilities of dogs to rescue people when humans cannot: Under her professional guidance, 19 bodies were recovered.

But Tal believes that the impact of dog training extends far beyond the dogs themselves — as illustrated by 14-year-old Ya’ar Klein.

Standing her tallest at 5 ‘4″, Ya’ar locks eyes with Bosga, a three-year-old Rottweiler, as she teaches him to bark on command — a crucial step in his training to find missing individuals. Guided by Tal, Ya’ar learns to stand dominantly and assertively.

“Don’t give up. The bark will come out, it is a sign of their frustration,” says Tal.

Ya’ar persists until she succeeds. Ayelet Klein, Ya’ar’s mother, has observed the positive transformation in her daughter’s life since the beginning of the project, noting Ya’ar’s increased confidence and newfound passion.

“Nitzan is raising the next generation,” says Ayelet, highlighting that the training has increased their quality time and strengthened familial bonds. It has also reinforced the longstanding credo that’s always existed in the household: “When someone needs help, we will be there.”

Rami Raveh and his son, Oded, also participate in this project together with their dogs Paige and Fifi. Rami says that working on this project as a family has taught his children accountability and responsibility.

Rescue dog Fifi finds a volunteer at the staging ground training site of Project Locate, spring of 2023. (Shanie Roth Photography)

“We do the dogs ‘homework’ together: on walks, we practice hiding in the field and sending Paige to find the other,” he said, adding that the project has become a shared commitment that strengthens the bonds within their family.

For Tal, dogs clearly carry transformative powers.

“Dogs can touch people and change lives in a way that human interaction fails,” she says.