A salute to rescue dogs helping in Maui

August 17, 2023

Rick Bowmer / AP

We often hear that “dogs are man’s best friend,” but for some pups, that goes above and beyond cuddling up on the couch and going for walks with their people. In some cases, dogs become trusted colleagues who work alongside first responders to help find and recover victims of disaster, often working tirelessly in dangerous conditions.

The history of the role of these dogs goes back to the classic St. Bernard, helping to guide, find, and recover hikers in the Arctic. They also served faithfully in both World Wars, not only helping to recover dead servicemen, but identifying field medics and guiding them back to camp so they could provide medical care to wounded soldiers. For many people, the images from the destruction to lower Manhattan after the attacks on the United States on 9/11, including the hundreds of dogs who worked for weeks to help recover victims, live in recent memory.

Now, the world has watched as wildfires swept through the Hawaiian island of Maui, made worse by strong winds from Hurricane Dora. The death toll from this sudden natural disaster has continued to climb in the week since and currently stands at more than 100. These numbers make it the deadliest wildfire in more than a century in the United States.

Among those helping to scour the ravaged areas are several dogs and their handlers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Urban Search and Rescue teams. According to CNN, “the dogs and their handlers have taken on the harrowing job of searching through the ruins to identify human remains that might be burnt beyond recognition, so authorities can begin the process of matching them with names and notifying families.”

Jason Purgason, the president and training director of Highland Canine Training, said this week that the strong, trusting relationship between the dogs and their handlers is of utmost importance in these circumstances.

“That’s critical,” Purgason said. “If that doesn’t work, nothing works.”

As of Aug. 16, only 30 percent of the burned area had been inspected by these loyal dogs and their handlers — with much of the job still ahead of them.

At the Humane Society of Missouri, we have always believed in the wonder, resilience and devotion of animals and have spent more than 150 years giving them the care and support – and the second chances – they deserve. Our hearts go out to not only the people of Maui, but also to all of these dedicated pups and their handlers as they continue to take on this daunting task.