Saving Lives at Ground Zero

When disaster strikes, search-and-rescue canines play a vital role. They can accomplish in minutes what might take hours or days for humans to work alone. There’s a shortage of trained canine-handler pairs, but Barry and Becky Switzer are working to change that through their nonprofit Ground Zero Emergency Training Center. 

Prepared for Anything

Ground Zero is the culmination of a longstanding dream for the Switzers. They first realized the vital role of search-and-rescue canines after the Murrah bombing and 9/11. They were spurred into action after the 2013 Moore tornado, where canines made a dramatic difference in recovery efforts. “That’s when I said, ‘We have to do this,’” recalls Becky. After extensive research and planning, Ground Zero opened in 2017.

The organization has a 60-acre training campus in Tuttle and several full-time staff members. They train teams from all across the country, but their main goal is to serve Oklahoma. “Our primary focus is training canines for Oklahoma Task Force-1 handlers, ensuring our state is ready for the unimaginable,” says Becky.

Raising Heroes

Ground Zero begins working with puppies when they’re just three days old. Trainers screen pups to see which ones have the keenest noses and the best temperaments for the job. The canines learn to work in noisy high-stress environments, navigate obstacles, and stay focused no matter what the distractions. After twelve to eighteen months, they’re matched with a handler.

Handlers complete a demanding two-week training course at Ground Zero and are never assigned a canine until they’re ready. Canine-handler pairs are carefully matched, and often the dogs take matters into their own paws, choosing the humans they want to bond with.

Canine and handler become an official team with a “Passing of the Leash” ceremony that includes everyone who’s been involved in the training. “It’s very moving,” says Becky. “The first time I saw one, I had tears rolling down my face.” 

Ground Zero retains ownership of the canines, monitoring them to ensure they get the best care and training. If handlers can’t care for them after retirement, Ground Zero finds adoptive homes for them. “We love our canines and are committed to caring for them their whole lives,” says Becky.

How to Get Involved

Ground Zero’s next special event will be a football-themed fundraiser, “Dinner on the Fifty,” on June 18. Guests will enjoy cocktails at the Switzer Center and a close-up look at other areas of the Gaylord Stadium, including a walk through the tunnel onto the field. Dogs will be on hand to welcome the guests. It’s a casual dress event, with an elegant dinner, live music, and dancing on the football field. “It’ll be an experience like no other,” says Becky.

Ground Zero also needs foster families that qualify to care for pups on weekends. “We require fosters to take classes with us to know the dos and don’ts for the pups assigned to them,” says Becky. “Fosters are fantastic; they give our young pups the experience of being off-campus, learning socialization skills, and some fun downtime from training.” All foster families and other volunteers must complete screenings, background checks, and intensive training.

Ground Zero has placed 46 canines so far, with 25 more in training. Whatever the need, their mission is to ensure Oklahoma is prepared.

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