You Can Tell By The Bark: How Ukraine's Rescue Dogs Search For Life And Death
Former canine athletes forced by war to become rescuers, a squad of dogs searches for survivors in ruined homes destroyed by rockets, and for unmarked graves in liberated Ukrainian territory.
It was April 23, 2022 in the eastern city of Pavlohrad when Russian armed forces fired three guided missiles, striking a railway junction and a factory.
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For local rescue workers, the area is familiar. But because of the darkness and the damaged structures of the building, it is barely recognizable. Members of the Antares search and rescue team, Petro Zub, Vyacheslav Maiboroda and Larysa Borysenko, and Borysenko's two dogs, Belonna (aka Besha) and Sparky, searched the rubble for nine hours before finding the body of a dead railroad worker.
The Antares search and rescue dogs were originally trained to search for people missing in the wilderness or injured by natural disasters — but then the war broke out.
Borysenko, head of the unit, gives a first-person account of their dangerous work.
It was scary. And when the morning came, I said: "Maybe it would be better if the sun never came up." To avoid seeing that horror. We didn't know that it would get worse.
After that first search operation, Besha and Sparky could not move for a week. One dog would walk and suddenly stagger, like a person in a stupor. Smoke, emotions, stress: this is the result.
We had to go to the vet to get help. Now, fortunately — or rather, unfortunately — the dogs are used to it, and they recover quickly. They can work again in a day.
Near a destroyed tank in Ukraine
Picture by Larisa Borysenko/Livy Bereg
Dnipro. January 14, 2023. A Russian missile hits a multi-story building. Dozens of people are reported missing.
The unit was on the scene two hours after the strike. Working in the fresh rubble is difficult because, until just now, everyday life continued here.
This specific smell of rocket fuel combustion products — you can't confuse it with anything else.
It's hard to make it fit in your mind. Concentrated grief and the smell of death.
Families come running up to us, asking us to find their loved ones. Looking at the rubble, we understood what was waiting for us. Emotionally, it was a tough moment. And when the guides with the dogs emerged after searching another part of the house, the families came running with a new question: "You are not only looking for the dead, are you?"
Sparky, my 10-year-old Belgian Malinois, worked in Dnipro for 22 hours straight. Only once did we leave the rubble, for just 10 minutes.
Then we brought Hannah, a Doberman. The dog is big, strong, and well-trained. We ran her up the steep walls, going for hours until she was exhausted.
People shouting, machinery, loud noises, buzzing generators — the dogs are used to it; it doesn't affect them in any way. But the acrid smoke makes their work very difficult. I remember it well from Pavlohrad. This specific smell of rocket fuel combustion products — you can't confuse it with anything else, and you won't smell anything like it in civilian life. It's very chemical, and it makes clothes, hair, skin and dog fur stink.
Canine rescue unit in Ukraine
Photo by Larisa Borysenko/Livy Bereg
Looking for the living and the dead
Rubble is always a bad scene. On arrival in Zaporizhzhia, when we explored the second floor, the dog gave us a sign, indicating something under the rubble.
We were going upstairs, and a guy shouted at us from the window: "You have a minute and a half." The walls, the floor —everything around us was moving.
Sparky and I work on the most challenging areas, like the upper floors. For high-altitude work, we lift the dog in a special harness, which we attach to one of the human rescuers. He climbs the ladder, and I follow. We crawl up and start searching the rooms. The smoke is so thick in some places that you can't see your hands. This was the case in Dnipro.
Our dogs look for the living and the dead. They mark the living by barking: cheerful, confident, joyful. If translated, it would sound something like: "Play with me!" A few dogs also bark at dead bodies, but the tone is different. Nervous. Other dogs mark bodies by digging or lying down silently.
Larisa Borysenko/Livy Bereg
Since the start of the invasion last year, our unit has been working in Zaporizhzhia, Pavlohrad, Dnipro, Izyum and Sloviansk. We often arrive just after the liberation of occupied territories, like in the Kyiv, Kharkiv and Donetsk regions.
Here, the tragedy could have happened months ago, but you can still feel the grief. It is silent. At those locations, we were looking for our fallen soldiers.
In total, we've already found more than two hundred people, dead and alive.
You drive into a settlement and realize that people will never come back here because there is not a single house left. Everything has been razed to the ground. You see a ruined shop with some ridiculous name. You start to imagine that there must have been parties in the evenings here, and suddenly, in one moment, all this happened. And life went away.
Five or six cows, dogs and cats were lying dead on the road in one village. We met only one local and asked him what had happened. "When the Russians were running away, they just killed everything they saw. They came to destroy the country, to kill everyone they could get their hands on. Do you understand?"
In such missions, our dogs work on extremely difficult cases.
It was a village in the Kharkiv region. We were investigating a location where, five months ago, a resident tried to hastily bury the body of one of our soldiers. But then the Russians came and drove him away, and rolled up with tanks and armored personnel carriers. After months of activity, the soil became like concrete.
The locals did not remember the exact location of the burial. Three of our dogs worked at the site, marking the same place. An excavator drove in and found the body at a depth of one and a half meters, right where the dogs had indicated.
Later, in the same village, the locals told us there was someone buried in the house, but the person who had buried the body had left.
Sparky came to the location and said: "Here." We couldn't see how there could be a grave there, but the dog persisted. Eventually, we got an excavator, and almost two meters down, we found a body covered with linoleum.
In total, we've already found more than two hundred people, dead and alive. Sparky alone has found more than a hundred.