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Slated for demolition, Tacoma school building becomes canine training ground

The goal is to fine-tune vital skills the dogs will need for urban disaster relief.

TACOMA, Wash. — School was in session Sunday at Tacoma's Fawcett Elementary, but for a different set of students.

The building is set to be demolished in March and was the perfect environment for the Northwest Disaster Search Dogs, a nonprofit group that trains dogs for urban search and rescue.

“It’s a great opportunity for the dogs. We don’t get a lot of opportunities like this search buildings,” said Northwest Disaster Search Dogs President Janiece Miller.

The opportunity allowed the dogs to hone their skills in more complex environments, making them more effective in the field. The goal of Northwest Disaster Search Dogs is to provide trained dogs, handlers and support personnel for people trapped following a disaster.

“The air movement in buildings can be quite challenging," Miller said. “You can have someone hiding in a cupboard on this side, but their odor is going up on the ceiling and maybe dropping on the wall. So, sometimes, we’ll see dogs that bark on the wall on the other side just because of the odor picture. So, this gives the dogs an opportunity to work through those more challenging odor pictures.”

The dogs play a vital role in saving lives in disaster relief work because their size allows them to get into hard-to-reach areas and find people before it’s too late.

“They can go in places where it’s not safe for people to go, and they can locate an individual and that lets us know to put resources in that area. So, they can be a huge asset because they can do things that no other resource can,” Miller said.