Growing up, L.A. Firefighter Jason Jasgur and his family always surrounded themselves with dogs. His dad volunteered for search and rescue at Los Angeles County Sheriff and trained wilderness search dogs.
Assisting his dad with canine training stuck with Jason and eventually turned into an avenue for him to pursue the firefighting profession.
He says, “I was pretty young, but my dad did a great job of keeping my sister and me involved with the training.”
Jason started his firefighting career in South Carolina for six years and later got hired by Los Angeles City Fire Department in 2014 and was assigned to Station 27. After being a firefighter for 11 years, he became a canine handler in July of 2018, and was paired up with a black male Labrador named Ruffy, by the Search Dog Foundation (SDF).
His dad trained a Malamute mixed, a different breed than what’s typically recruited for search work. Labs like Ruffy are much more common.
Before earning his place as part of a first responder team, Ruffy dabbled in the world of hunting, but his original owner decided Ruffy’s loud bark was not the best fit. So, at the age of two, Ruffy arrived at the National Training Center for the Search Dog Foundation, where his strong bark made him a perfect candidate for search work.
In the beginning, Jason knew he would encounter obstacles in being a first-time handler, but they worked well together from the get-go. On a daily basis, Jason works with Ruffy on basic obedience commands, direction and control exercises, and agility at least two hours a day. For example, Jason sets up ladders for Ruffy to climb, testing his balance for unsteady surfaces during disasters.
Ruffy is a L.A. City Fire Department (LAFD) dog attached to the Federal Emergency Management Agency a.k.a. FEMA Task Force 1, making him available 24/7 for city and regional deployments in disaster cases such as hurricanes, terrorist attacks, and earthquakes.
Since receiving certification, Ruffy is required to train four days per month team alongside other LAFD canines performing search work. Thus far, Jason and Ruffy haven’t worked on major tasks and have been mainly limited to training.
Apart from that, Jason believes in giving Ruffy time to rest. On Ruffy’s days off, he hangs out with other firefighters and Jason’s family and relaxes at his favorite spot in front of Jason’s chair.
“Our dogs are typically just stressed as we are,” says Jason. “It’s important for them to get a little bit of time to not be under pressure and just be a dog. It has worked out for my dog which makes him stellar for search work and he’s good at his job.”
With all the coaching, Ruffy passed a two-part test, which included a Foundational Skills Assessment and a Certification Exam, both required for FEMA Certification.
Both tests focus on victim searches, however, the Foundation Skills test also highlights tasks such as aggression/heeling, agility, sense of direction, and bark alerts. At the end of the test, Ruffy successfully found five victims at the two rubble piles for the Certification Exam portion.
Generations of family bonding with Ruffy
After a long day from the fire station, Ruffy goes home with Jason to his family and two other dogs. Being a firefighter comes with many duties, but training Ruffy has been a great bonding opportunity for the entire family, especially with his son.
While Jason’s son has assisted in giving basic commands, he prefers playing the victim in different search scenarios where Ruffy rescues him. Going through Ruffy’s drills at home reminds Jason of the days with his dad, reliving those scenarios and creating new memories with his son.
“My son is very enthusiastic when it comes to training with Ruffy,” says Jason. “The chances to spend good quality time together while still working with my dog and build similar experiences to what I had as a kid.”
In addition to in-house training, Ruffy travels with Jason to different places for training opportunities and family vacations. During a Sacramento family trip, Jason and Ruffy practiced drills with other canine handlers. Also in the travel log is a trip to New York for the Search Dog Foundation’s public relations event.
Given that he’s a relatively new handler, Jason aims to increase Ruffy’s skills for navigating around wide areas for exposed victim searches in order to assist with missing person or lost hiker incidents. Above all else, the goal for Ruffy is aligning his capability to FEMA’s requirements for intense circumstances.
“We came together quickly which was good, he has made me being a first-time handler an easier process than I probably deserved,” says Jason.
By Katherine Abando
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