HUALIEN, TAIWAN – A golden Labrador retriever on his first rescue mission has won praise for helping Taiwanese search teams find two people trapped in a building severely damaged building by this week’s deadly earthquake.
Four-year-old Tie Hsiung (Iron Hero) braved dangerous aftershocks on his first field test to search for survivors after a 6.4 magnitude quake struck the popular eastern tourist city of Hualien on Tuesday.
Thanks to the determined dog, one person trapped for 15 hours was finally located relatively unscathed and pulled from the wreckage of the precariously leaning Marshal Hotel.
“The terrain was quite dangerous with glass and nails,” 28-year-old trainer Li Chun-sheng said, beaming with pride. “I thought he may be too afraid, but he was able to overcome this to go into the rubble pile, so I think he did great.”
The other person pulled from the rubble later died.
Rescuers were searching Friday for seven people: a couple from Hong Kong who hold Canadian citizenship and five members of a family from China — parents, grandparents and their 12-year-old son.
All are trapped in the hotel occupying the bottom floors of the Yunmen Tsuiti building in Hualien, whose economy is heavily dependent on tourism.
The official death toll stood at 10 on Friday, including four tourists from China and a 27-year-old Filipino employed as a household helper. Taiwan’s National Fire Agency lists 273 people as injured.
Hundreds of rescuers were on the scene, including a team from Japan deploying cutting-edge equipment that can detect a heartbeat within 15 meters (49 feet). This equipment is being used to check the rubble of the lower floors, which mostly collapsed.
As soon as the quake struck, Tie Hsiung flew out with a rescue team from the western city of Taichung alongside fellow Labrador Tuei Tuei (Leg-Leg), also 4 years old.
It was a mission the canines had trained extensively for but had never been truly tested on.
Tuei Tuei’s trainer, Lin You-zhun, applauded his own black Labrador, which was sent to search the hotel’s upper floors.
“Usually we choose where and when we train, and it is always in a safe area. But during a natural disaster, we never know when there will be aftershocks,” said Lin, also 28.
Taichung Mayor Lin Chia-lung made a special mention of the canine pair, praising them for “achieving a great merit” while netizens quickly dubbed the duo the “pride of Taichung” as photos of the dogs went viral.
Li said Tie Hsiung had to be taken to the vet Thursday morning for ear inflammation possibly caused by allergies, the weather or stress.
The pair were picked from a customs training center where they failed to make the cut as drug detection dogs.
Lin said this was because they were “too lively.” But that is exactly the trait authorities look for in rescue dogs.
“When choosing a dog, we want one to be playful and like to eat so we can incentivise them to work. They also have to be bold, so as not to be afraid of any sound or machinery,” Li said.
Taiwan didn’t have any fully established canine rescue teams until about seven years ago, according to Chou Tsung-chi, a senior trainer with the National Fire Agency.
He recalled how teams flew in from other countries to help Taiwan in the aftermath of a major earthquake in 1999 that killed around 2,400 people.
“Everyone had search dogs, but we didn’t,” said Chou, adding that Taiwan today has around 50 trained up and ready to go.
“Dogs have an incredibly strong olfactory ability,” he said. “No matter how sensitive or skilled a person is, they are no match for dogs.”