Personnel changes took place at Santa Barbara County Fire in recent weeks with the retirement of Riley the rescue dog and the hiring of Waffles, Captain Eric Gray’s new canine partner.
Riley, a yellow Labrador mix, is an eight-year veteran of County Fire, working with Gray as a live scent search dog both in the county and out. The pair were deployed to Japan in 2011 after the Fukushima disaster to search for earthquake survivors, then to Tibet in 2015 after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake there. They went overseas again in 2017 to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and then were the first pair on the scene in the search for survivors of the Montecito debris flow in 2018. Riley, now 11 years old, went home with Gray, who’s been with County Fire for 15 years, as the new family pet.
Waffles, who was recruited as a stray in Ventura, looks to be a Belgian malinois and recently graduated from the Santa Paula-based Search Dog Foundation training program. The young dog’s drive, focus, and athletic ability were successfully channeled to the search for people trapped in wreckage in the seven-month program. During the ceremony, one of his trainers commented on the challenges in store for Gray due to his new dog’s high intelligence and energy level. Gray explained he’d considered hanging up the leash after Montecito and thanked his wife for saying yes to his decision to take on Waffles.
Waffles graduated with five other dogs at the end of September, part of a group of 15 dogs who were screened from 600 candidates, 30 of whom began training with the foundation. “If they don’t graduate, they have a ‘career change,'” explained the foundation’s Denise Sanders, to a different type of training. “One dog is in the Pacific Northwest tracking wolves for scientists,” she said, then described another dog whose nose worked for a young woman with diabetes to detect when her blood-sugar gets too high. The foundation keeps track of all their dogs to give them lifetime care when necessary, she said. None go back to a shelter.
Gray and Waffles continue to train daily. They also travel to Los Angeles frequently to work out with other members of California Task Force 2, which provides international assistance through the U.S. Agency for International Development.