Pet Connections

Western Pennsylvania Search and Rescue Development Center

By April Minech

Founded in 2000, the Western Pennsylvania Search and Rescue Development Center focuses specifically on the special needs population. The group cares for the health and safety of their clients, and trains dogs to work both for and with people. Executive Director Cynthia Garfold explains how it works. “If a person goes missing that has dementia, autism, or Alzheimer’s we are certified as lost person behavior specialists. We’ll go out and search for them and bring them back to safety, as there are liability issues searching for persons with special needs.”

As a provider under the Department of Health and Human Services, they go into the home and community to provide support for people with intellectual disabilities, Autism, and Alzheimer’s. They can bring an already trained dog to a person with needs or help place a dog specially trained for that person. “Right now, we are working with a dog whose trainer is the child’s mother. She brought the dog into us with a solid training base and worked with our organization to get pointers and more information about how to teach the dog to work with autism,” says Garfold. The dog also works in search and rescue and nose work, in addition to providing the service.

At any given time, there could be several dogs in the pipeline, depending on the washout factor. The dogs must go through several levels of training in a range of skill tests. For example, a dog may do great in obedience, but not score as well in another area. “The dogs have to ultimately do a search through 5 miles of all terrain to pass the advanced level. Will they ever have to do a search for 5 miles? Maybe not, but it builds up their endurance,” states Ms. Garfold. “If they quit after 1 or 2 miles, we have to wash them out.”

Not only does the dog go to classes, the handler does as well. “They’re a team. They learn all about the ICS (Incident Command Structure) and continually attend courses on autism. “And we actually provide a continuing education course for Police, EMS and Fire Rescue, so they know how to go into a home and look for a special needs person.”

Sometimes people come in with their own dogs looking to do search and rescue. “We find that a lot of people want to learn the canine lessons but not the handler training; their goal is to be a K-9 handler. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way, as there is a lot to learn about the special needs population, and the handler and dog need to work as a team. Sometimes the dog is great, but the team washes out because of the handler.”

All dogs are trained to work with any handler. Cynthia talks about the importance of that: “The thought is, what if I’m out searching and go down? The life of a person can be at stake, so we want the dog to keep going.” Everyone needs to have the same training, so they can all stay on the same page.

There are no breed restrictions for the work. There are four young dogs currently in the trying out stage. There’s a Golden Retriever, Silken Wind hound, and Australian Shepherd mix in the new class. “You need a working dog with drive; some of the dogs you see that are great dock diving or hunting dogs make great search and rescue dogs.”

Dogs can work in several areas, from cadaver work, live finds, water work and all different kinds of nose work. All the dogs get a chance to try each sector to find where their niche is. If a dog points toward one area over the others, they try to enhance that, as dogs will naturally excel at what they like best.

The agency has a new facility that houses a training center where the dogs work at agility, nose work, and obedience, a room specifically designed for sensory therapy, a full kitchen, a classroom, and a social gathering area. The organizations’ emergency operation center is also housed at the facility. Training is really going on 24 hours a day, but organized sessions happen at the center 2 or 3 time per week. Tracking/trailing training is done outdoors at many places in and outside of Allegheny County “We offer classes for nose work, and the facility provides other opportunities such as agility training”

The Search and Rescue and Habilitation specialists are paid positions, but the group offers classes which offer certification upon completion. The facility is available for rental, and open to the public.

For more information on Western Pennsylvania Search & Rescue, visit:
1405 Frey Road
Pittsburgh, PA 15235
Phone: 412-856-4357
Fax: 412-646-2615

Photo credits: Emily Buerger 4Steady Paws Photography


December 14, 2023
December 14, 2023


December 12, 2023