Among the police, fire fighters, doctors and other 'first-responders' who flocked to the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina were specially trained search and rescue teams, of dogs and their handlers. After a grueling 2-week-long mission in the Gulf, a small caravan rolls in to Los Angeles Fire Station 88, greeted by a cheering crowd of well-wishers waving homemade 'welcome home' signs, flowers and small American flags.
Ron Weckbacher gets off one of the buses, accompanied by Mannie and Dawson, two almost-identical white and black border collies. The dogs prompt spontaneous smiles from a small crowd of children. "Did you see Dawson?" he asks one little boy. "He likes little kids. Be careful though… he's going to give you a big old smooch right on your face!"
On most days, the 44-year old financial adviser wears a suit and tie, but today he's wearing a different uniform: the blue baseball cap, t-shirt, pants and heavy work boots of the Los Angeles Fire Department. As a volunteer with the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, Mr. Weckbacher accompanied the L.A. Fire Department's Task Force to the Gulf Coast.
He looks a little weary as he admits, "Unfortunately there's only so much you can do, you can offer hope and a lot of help, but it was sad to see all they had to go through…"
One free hand is always resting on one of his dogs. Mannie, still in his orange vest, is trained to find people trapped under debris. Dawson, who has pale green eyes, has a tougher job. He's trained to find those who can no longer be helped. Mr. Weckbacher has nothing but praise for the dog, "He kept searching and searching and he did not stop. He got some cuts, some punctures… it never fazed him."
Most of the FEMA-certified canine rescue teams in the hurricane-affected areas were trained by the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation. Its 62 dedicated volunteers are partnered for this rescue work with dogs that have been rescued themselves from animal shelters. The training can take more than a year and cost up to $10 thousand per team. The dog and handler are a team in every sense of the word, and are with each other day in and day out.
Ron Weckbacher and his dogs have been away from home on this mission for two weeks. They're welcomed home by Eric, 6, Ron's wife Lisa, and an 11-year-old stay-at-home beagle named Belle. "Do you know how much I missed you?" he asks Eric. "Forever?" Eric guesses, as the dogs bark in the background. " And to the moon and back," his dad adds.
He's looking forward to getting back to his normal routine, but has a ready answer to a question he's heard many times before: Why do this? "You know," he explains, "it's real simple. Everyone gives in their own way. This is the way I give. I enjoy it, I hope that I can make a difference in somebody's life, and I just happened to choose doing it with the dogs."
Ron Weckbacher and his dogs have responded to calls for help across the country, from the 9-11 attacks in New York City to mudslides that flattened homes in southern California. He says the disasters all had one thing in common, something that affects victims and rescue workers alike: grief. Easing that emotional pain is another part of Mannie and Dawson's job. "They are my comfort, and I can't tell you how many times people come up to me and say, 'Can I pet your dog?' They just love having that creature to be able to hold and pet." He points out that stroking an animal is very therapeutic for a lot of people.
In the morning, Mr. Weckbacher will return to his regular job. His dogs will go to the office with him. The three of them are ready to go wherever they're needed, on just an hour's notice. For now, in the calm after the storm, there's a chance to be thankful for what they have and what they could contribute. He gathers his family around him. "Everybody's going to grab a blanket, sit on the floor, hug each other -- dogs included -- and thank God for what we are blessed with," he says. The dogs bark an 'amen.'