Cloned dogs training for search and rescue

The dogs are genetic replicas of a famous K9 dog.

By Knowles Adkisson / Special to The Malibu Times

Malibu has recently become one of several training grounds throughout the greater Los Angeles area for five German Shepherds as rescue dogs. But these are no ordinary dogs. They are genetic replicas, clones, of a K9 police partner, a famous search and rescue dog named Trakr.

Trakr has been credited with finding hundreds of people and more than $1 million worth of stolen goods. His crowning achievement, though, came in the wake of the World Trade Center disaster on Sept. 11, 2001.

Trakr and his owner, former Canadian police officer James Symington, arrived at Ground Zero from Halifax, Nova Scotia within 14 hours of the towers’ collapse.

“At some point during the morning of September 12, Trakr got a hit, indicating that somebody alive was buried beneath the surface,” Symington said.

Rescue workers excavated the area and pulled out a woman. She would be the last survivor found after 9/11.

Dr. Jane Goodall feted Trakr with a humanitarian service award, and his story was featured on CNN, the CBS “Early Show” and other national news programs.

A few years later, Symington and his family moved to Los Angeles, where he works as a manager in the entertainment industry. It was there that Trakr’s odyssey took a turn for the surreal. In 2008, Symington learned of a contest being conducted by BioArts International, a biotech corporation based near San Francisco, for the “World’s Most Clone worthy Dog.” Trakr by that point was 15 years old, aging and infirm. Symington entered Trakr into the contest, along with a DNA sample. He won, and later, five genetic replicas of Trakr were produced at the Sooam Biotech Foundation, a laboratory in South Korea.

In June of 2009, the puppies arrived in Los Angeles to meet Symington for the first time. Symington gave them names to reflect different qualities of Trakr: Trustt [sic], Solace, Valor, Prodigy and Deja vu. But they would never meet their genetically identical father-Trakr had died two months earlier.

Symington then founded the Team Trakr Foundation, resolving to train the dogs for search and rescue operations. In Symington’s vision, Team Trakr will operate similarly to Doctors Without Borders. Whenever a disaster, such as last year’s earthquake in Haiti, occurs, a Team Trakr dog will be sent to the area to assist in search and rescue operations. Symington estimates that a search and rescue dog is the equivalent of 20 or 30 human searchers.

“Dogs have a keen sense of smell and use their noses in ways people cannot, searching an area faster and more efficiently and increasing the chances of finding people alive,” he said.

Symington said he is grateful for the gift of the dogs, but wishes to avoid becoming embroiled in the debate over cloning.

“I respect that cloning is not for everyone,” he said.

BioArts International initiated the cloning contest in 2007 to gauge interest in the commercial cloning market among private pet owners, but has since discontinued it after lower-than-expected interest apparently answered its question. One significant benefit of cloning in this particular case is that each of the dogs possesses Trakr’s unique characteristics-an incredible drive, air-scenting ability and adaptability to diverse terrains-that are difficult to find in one dog. By having Trakr cloned, BioArts International effectively short-circuited nature to produce five world-class search and rescue dogs.

The dogs began training in December under the direction of Kevin Gallivan, an experienced trainer from Nova Scotia who trained Symington and Trakr in 1995. In February or March, each dog will be matched with a handler. The handlers will then be integrated into the training, which Symington hopes to complete by April. At that point, the dogs will be ready for deployment wherever they are needed across the globe.

The dogs have been training at a private property in Malibu for one or two days a week.

“The Malibu community has been very welcoming and supportive,” Symington said.

Of particular help, he said, have been Malibu residents Nereida Heath and Christina Carmel. Heath and Carmel learned of the organization’s cause and helped locate training locations in Malibu.

Heath said she fell in love with Team Trakr’s mission, because, she said, “It’s not a matter of if [a disaster’s] going to happen, it’s when.”

Once the dogs’ training is complete, Symington, an advocate for rescuing shelter dogs, intends to begin phase two of Team Trakr’s mission, called Operation Second Chance. They hope to rescue dogs from shelters and then train them as search and rescue dogs.

People who wish to learn more or donate to Team Trakr can do so by visiting its Web site,

The process of training search and rescue dogs

James Symington stands beside trainer Kevin Gallivan and Trustt-the dog Symington said looks most like Trakr, the dog from which Trustt was cloned. With what is called a “kong,” an oblong pink ball, in his hand, Symington runs alongside a row of six red cloth-covered tripods, hiding behind the fourth one. Trustt strains at the leash, jumping up and down, before Gallivan allows him to follow. Trustt soon finds Symington with the kong and Symington rewards him by throwing it to him.

“That’s a good boy!” Symington yells repeatedly, and pets him.

In this exercise, Symington and Gallivan are training Trustt, along with the other dogs, to “speak for the kong.” It is an essential skill for the dogs to have during search and rescue missions, when they will have to rely on their noses, instead of their eyes, to find humans trapped under rubble and debris.

The process of training a search and rescue dog, Symington said, takes about four months.

“The dogs have to be trained in obedience, agility, tracking, article searches, area searches and building searches,” he said.

Most of the training boils down to basic psychology: give the dog an objective, then reward him with positive verbal and physical feedback.

In the case of missing persons, tracking is an important skill. That involves the dog putting his nose to the ground to follow a human scent trail. Everywhere humans go, they leave behind pheromones and skin rafts, microscopic portions of skin, which dogs can smell. Symington said this differs from area searching, where “the dog uses the air currents to detect a person’s location. Trakr (who died several years ago) was able to detect and find persons up to two miles away using this method.”

“The whole game of search and rescue is a game of hide and seek,” he said. “They associate human scent with the toy.”

But though it is a game to the dogs, Symington knows that their success has very real consequences for people trapped during disasters.

According to, more than 50,000 search and rescue missions take place each year in the United States alone. Ninety percent of these are conducted by volunteers. If Team Trakr is successful, it could result in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of saved lives each year.

For now, the dogs will continue training in different locations and landscapes. They need to be able to search in wooded areas, open meadows, collapsed rubble, and in rain or sun, snow or sleet. Symington said he welcomes any volunteers in Malibu with large properties to offer as a new training ground.

“We’re always looking for new places to train.”

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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