Christchurch Earthquake: Dog tales (+win)

The canine heroes and victims of Christchurch’s earthquakes are immortalised in a new book by Laura Sessions and Craig Bullock

Guinness. Photo / Random House
Guinness. Photo / Random House

Next week, a new story of the Christchurch earthquakes will be told. It is that of the devastated city's canines - those who were trapped in the mud caused by liquefaction, those who fled their family homes in terror and ran miles to find their families, those who were so traumatised by the February 2011 quake they had to be rehomed with families in other cities, and the doggy heroes who worked tirelessly to find people trapped in destroyed buildings.

Quake Dogs tells the moving stories of 84 dogs, including Guinness, the Irish wolfhound who was awarded a New Zealander of the Year local hero award for his work with the Student Volunteer Army, and Nemo, a 13-year-old alsatian beagle cross with a special gift for predicting earthquakes. Author Joe Bennett contributes to the book with a moving tribute to his dog Blue, who was so traumatised by the quakes he spends much of his time hiding in Bennett's car.

BOSS

Boss. Photo / Random House
Boss. Photo / Random House

An incredibly fast and almost manic border collie, Boss was 14 months old when Brenda, the national trainer for Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) dogs, adopted him from the Christchurch pound. Brenda recognised his incredible drive and decided to give him a month of training in search and rescue.

Within six months, Boss was certified and became a fully operational USAR dog.

His intensive training included searching for volunteers hidden in piles of rubble amid confusion and noise - experiences that would help prepare him for the biggest search-and-rescue mission in New Zealand's history.

On February 22, 2011, Boss was one of the first dogs to arrive at the collapsed and burning CTV building, about two-and-a-half hours after the big earthquake.

Like all USAR dogs in New Zealand, Boss had been trained to locate people who are alive and buried under rubble by scent, and to then alert his handler by barking frantically.

Just as they arrived at the CTV site, searchers were pulling two people out of the rubble.

Boss began searching on that side of the building, where a fire had broken out, and he quickly barked to indicate that someone was there.

On the other side of the site, where the building had collapsed, he barked to alert Brenda again.

In training, Boss would have been rewarded for finding someone with his special search toy, presented by the hidden person. This time, though, Boss did not get to stick around long enough to see whether anyone would emerge from the rubble, as he and Brenda had to race off to another site where they were needed.

However, when they came back to the CTV building later that day, someone said to Brenda, 'You know where the dogs barked at that corner? They got several people out of there. Well done.'

Boss and the other USAR dogs not only helped to locate people who could be rescued, they also kept hope alive for those who were buried and waiting to be found.

After the quakes, once Brenda and Boss resumed their weekly Saturday walks, they frequently encountered a man walking a dalmatian. One day Brenda started talking with him and discovered he had been trapped in the PGC building during the February earthquake. He told Brenda the one thing that kept him going was hearing a dog barking and knowing rescuers were out there looking for him.

BLUE

Blue. Photo / Random House
Blue. Photo / Random House

I got Blue from the pound as a puppy. He was scared of big dogs, though he pretended otherwise, and of being excluded from car trips. But unlike any dog I'd had before, he wasn't scared of thunder or of fireworks or even, when they first struck, of earthquakes. - Blue's owner, author Joe Bennett.

On the morning of September 4, 2010 Blue came into the bedroom after the first quake to see if things were all right. They were, so he went back to his armchair in the living room.

During the numerous aftershocks he merely looked up at me. I have found that the best way to reassure a dog is to carry on as normal.

But on February 22, 2011 we were close to the epicentre. The quake hit like a rifle shot.

Blue fled the house and stood shaking in the garden. A few minutes later an aftershock saw him leap the fence and pick a fight with the neighbour's dog. Then he ran away. He had never done any of these things before. Five minutes later I got a call from a friend who lives on the other side of Lyttelton.

Blue had run there.

Twenty months have passed since then. Blue's spent a lot of them in the car. I leave it permanently open in the garage. It's become his refuge, his den.

Like a den, it's low-roofed, enclosing, dark. And unlike a house it has shock absorbers.

He is in there now, at 11 on a Saturday morning, curled in the driver's seat, his head flopped over the handbrake. When I make lunch shortly, he'll join me in the house.

After lunch I'll take him out on the hills, then feed him. But once he's sure the good things are over, he'll spend the afternoon in the car.

Thunder now terrifies him, fireworks too, and he's alarmed even by the distant thud of containers being loaded on the wharf. And he doesn't like to be alone. I doubt he'll ever lose those traits now. The aftershocks went on for too long. But he's my dog, and I love him and he still relishes the world when it isn't shaking. We'll be fine.

GUINNESS

Guinness. Photo / Random House
Guinness. Photo / Random House

Guinness, a 6-year-old Irish wolfhound, is named for his "creamy top" and big body rather than his drinking abilities. However, on Friday afternoons he used to be found at the historic central city pub, the Carlton Hotel, where he could down a pint of beer in under a minute. After his pint, he would lie on a mat by the front door, where everyone who entered had to step over his not insignificant 80kg body.

Guinness' owner, Sean, describes him as a "magnet", which could be handy for meeting people at the pub on a Friday night. After February 22, 2011, though, when everything in Christchurch was tipped upside down, including routines, Guinness became a source of distraction and entertainment as he met new people around the city.

Sean and Guinness spent the next 22 days helping residents of the hard-hit eastern suburbs clean up mud caused by liquefaction and make their homes and roads liveable again. Guinness' main role was to get residents' minds off the quakes; as soon as they saw him, they had something else to talk about. He gave people a break, a reason to laugh - and, for anyone under 5 years of age, their first ever dog-ride.

Guinness became such an important character in the clean-up that he was delegated an unofficial mascot for the Student Volunteer Army and given the honorary title, "Earthquake Dog".

Guinness also used his charisma to help Sean wrangle some free gear to donate to people in the east. Together they distributed more than 800 shovels, 230 wheelbarrows and 1100 bottles of water.

After the earthquake, Guinness and Sean took a road trip to the North Island to thank people for their donations and along the way visited schools to talk about the value of volunteering. The children had few questions about the earthquakes or volunteering, however; mostly they just wanted to know more about Guinness. At one kindergarten, he gave 18 dog-rides in a single afternoon.

Shortly after the first anniversary of the February quake, Guinness received a medal for being a local hero, part of the annual New Zealander of the Year awards. Sean now has a new job at a construction company, and Guinness spends most days snoozing in the back office.

PIPER

Piper. Photo / Random House
Piper. Photo / Random House

Unlike many other dogs, who suffered severe anxiety after being home alone during the February 22, 2011 quake, being inside may well have saved the lives of Piper and her mother Lexi. The back yard, where they could have been, was buried under half a metre of mud. Owner Jill believes the dalmatians probably would have drowned in the sinkholes that emerged around the yard.

Jill was at work in the city during the quake, and it took her the best part of four hours to drive home to New Brighton. She had to park a block away from her house because the road in front of her house had suffered major damage, and the liquefaction was ankle-deep. After she walked home, a kind neighbour offered to go inside with her, saying she shouldn't have to face it alone.

Jill managed to get into the house, although the concrete paths were at odd angles and the garage door couldn't be opened. Mud had run throughout the house. However, Piper and Lexi were unharmed and were very pleased to see her. She collected a few things for herself and the dogs and walked with them back to the car through the thick silt.

They moved in with Jill's mother, Beryl, and her three dalmatians. There was no water or power, so Jill went with neighbours each day to fill containers of water from a collection point.

As the aftershocks continued, Jill noticed that Piper became increasingly nervous.

Whenever a tremor hit, she would jump up, whine and look for comfort.

When the December 23, 2011 quake hit, Piper was so distraught that she kept clawing Jill's legs, trying to climb on to her lap. Piper still notices every tremor and doesn't like to be left home alone.

BLAZE

Blaze. Photo / Random House
Blaze. Photo / Random House

Blaze is a 5-year-old mixed breed from the SPCA. She's named for the white blaze up her nose, as well as her "quick as a blaze" reactions. When earthquakes hit, Blaze is true to her name and hurtles under the bed, where she remains for as long as possible.

Owner Angela, who at the time of the February 22, 2011 earthquake worked at a doggie daycare, describes Blaze as "more human than dog". She has four large crates of toys that line the lounge wall. Blaze's favourite toy is a simple cloth star, which she likes nibbling at the seams.

Blaze and her family live in Aranui, a suburb hard-hit by liquefaction after the February 22, 2011 earthquake.

A couple of months after that quake, Angela took Blaze in for routine surgery to remove a small lump on her thigh. Blaze had a high temperature and Angela asked for a blood test to find out what was going on. The results from the blood work astounded the vet and Angela - Blaze's liver enzyme levels were so high they couldn't even be measured. More blood tests and then an ultrasound confirmed that Blaze had serious liver damage. In May, Blaze had her first biopsy, which showed she had virtually no normal liver tissue left. The vet said it was terminal and gave Blaze just six months to live.

The vet suspected that a toxin was attacking her liver.

Despite reassurances that Blaze's condition had nothing to do with the earthquakes, Angela had to wonder about the mud caused by liquefaction and dust surrounding her house. She thought of the big grey footprints Blaze tracked into the house after the February quake.

Angela resolved to do everything she could to try to save her dog. Blaze stayed at the vet clinic for a week, attached to an IV that pumped fluid through her body. Her medication chart filled an entire A4 page, with a dose of 20 tablets each day. At times it took Angela two hours to get her to take all of the medication. She hid the tablets in marshmallows or cheese for a while, until Blaze stopped eating those, too.

For a while, Angela's entire wages were going to pay for Blaze's care. In a bid to help raise a few dollars, Angela even put Blaze's favourite star toy up for sale on TradeMe. It sold for $150, and others donated money or sent toys. Someone even made a blanket especially for Blaze.

Blaze's condition is now improving, with biopsies showing that her liver is slowly healing - something the vets never thought would be possible.

However, Blaze still takes medicine twice a day and probably will have to for the rest of her life. She has also developed a skin condition that requires more medication and a special diet.

However, her zest for life and toys continues, and Angela will keep doing whatever it takes to be sure she is happy.

MILO

Milo. Photo / Random House
Milo. Photo / Random House

When the September 4, 2010 earthquake struck, Milo, a beagle/fox terrier/basenji cross, was home alone in an upstairs apartment. His owner, Annie, was away for the night and could not get back to him until after daybreak that morning.

When she finally got home, Annie found the neighbour's chimney had fallen across the shared drive, and she had to scramble over the shattered bricks to reach the front door.

She climbed the stairs and found that fallen kitchen appliances were blocking the door from the inside. She managed to push some of it aside and wedge the door open a crack.

Milo sprinted frantically through the small gap, hyperventilating and with the whites of his eyes showing.

He ran down the steps and to the far corner of the garden, where he hid by the fence.

Annie picked him up but, still shaking violently, he turned his head away from her as if to say, 'You weren't here; you let me down.'

After that, Milo wouldn't look at Annie and he refused to go back into the flat. He was so anxious that Annie took him to the vet, who prescribed the anti-anxiety drug Xanax. This helped to calm his nerves, but he still refused to go home. He stayed with Annie's friends for three months.

Annie would bring him back to the apartment every now and then, trying to coax him into going back inside.

Milo would just press himself against the fence in the garden and refuse to go any further. Gradually, though, he got more and more used to coming back home, until finally one day he hesitantly agreed to come back inside.

Annie tried to divert his attention by giving him treats and a tennis ball.

She closed the door for brief periods of time, until Milo finally relaxed enough to stay inside and not try to escape.

He was still very jumpy, and refused to be left alone. Annie had a dog door installed so that he could get outside whenever he wanted. She also attended a special workshop on Tellington TTouch therapy, which can be used to ease dogs' fear and anxiety.

She learned to massage Milo's sides, squeeze his legs and rub his gums.

Slowly Milo's anxiety began to ease, and he made "earthquake buddies" with other dogs that had been affected by the quakes. One of them, who was also home alone when the February earthquake struck, now comes to stay when her owner is busy. Just like Milo, she doesn't like to be left on her own.

Milo and his earthquake buddies hang out once a week and make each other feel more secure. They go out as a pack on adventures to the beach, Hagley Park and Bottle Lake Forest. One of these buddies, Jenny, recently had a special birthday party and Milo dressed up in his finest bow tie to celebrate.


Extracted from Quake Dogs. The book, with text by Laura Sessions and photography by Craig Bullock, is published by Random House, $34.99, on October 4. Proceeds go to the animal rescue organisation, HUHA.

We have 10 copies of Quake Dogs to give away to Canvas readers. Email your entry to canvas@nzherald.co.nz by 12pm Tuesday, October 1. Please write "Quake Dog giveaway" in the subject line and include your name, daytime phone number and address in your entry. Winners will be announced on October 5.

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