K9 rescue squad a bunch of very good boys and girls

It's early on a Sunday morning and Bron Mullins is laser focused on her dog as he navigates a labyrinth of rubble searching for victims.

An enormous sink hole has opened up and two people are missing.

A bus is sea-sawing precariously on the ruptured ground, huge concrete structures have toppled onto cars, and power lines are down.

At just two years of age, Ryker the beagle-kelpie cross knows he's got a job to do and his nose is in over-drive, clocking the scents of all the humans in his vicinity.

But he knows exactly which ones to discount.

He knows he's not searching for the many rescuers combing the disaster scene because he can see them.

Countless hours of careful training have taught him to look for the hidden humans, the ones in trouble under the rubble.

In the world of canine search and rescue, which requires dogs to sniff out humans they've never encountered before, context is everything.

"You'll see them checking out observers on the pile and it's like nope, not you, nope, not you. They check them off and keep working until they find that scent they can smell in the air, but can't see," Bron explains from a hyper-realistic disaster training ground at the Port of Brisbane.

Bron and Ryker are volunteer members of an elite group of rescuers that epitomise a famous line by Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk who wrote: "Dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen."

There is a shared language between the pair. 

It's not English, and it's not dog, although there are elements of both, blended with a suite of unspoken two-way transmissions from stance and posture, to eye signals and recurrent cycles of effort and reward.

Every hidden human found means a treat, and high praise. Good boy, good boy. And Ryker laps it up.

The dedicated duo along, with Bron's other faithful companion Zacc, are part of Queensland's Urban Search and Rescue K9 squad.

Zacc is 12 now, and a veteran with years of experience under his collar, while Ryker's only just passed his foundation skills assessment with the sink hole rescue scenario a couple of weeks ago.

But for all three, despite the enormous amount of time it takes to keep their skills up, it's a labour of love that keeps life interesting.

"It's a huge commitment for volunteers. We'll do search training one to two times a week, but then there's all the other elements you have to keep on top of. Obedience, down stays, agility is a massive one, and control," Bron says.

"You've got to be able to control them in a search. And they've got to be able to navigate over that pile, so it's about keeping them fit and strong - all those little daily things that makes the whole package."

Then there's the critical role curiosity plays.

"A lot of the time, handlers can't be right next to them and if they are following an odour they've got to be able to keep pushing through.

"So we do encourage a lot of behaviour that other people don't necessarily want in their dogs," she says, as Ryker effortlessly springs onto an outdoor table as if he overheard and wanted to prove the point.

"We want them to investigate things. We want them to be independent, to be able to jump on cars, and go though busses. They need to be able to do that."

They also need to be able to abseil. Yes, that's right, abseiling dogs. In harnesses, traversing down dizzying vertical drops with their handlers. And they barely bat an eye.

In July, a bunch of K9 volunteers strapped themselves in for just such an exercise, and the pictures almost broke the internet.

Mark Crowe manages Queensland's technical rescue capabilities and says the K9 squad is a crucial component of a UN-accredited team that helped out when an earthquake killed 185 people in the New Zealand city of Christchurch in 2011.

Members of the Queensland squad also went to Japan that year when one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded struck off the country's northeast coast, causing a deadly tsunami that triggered a nuclear meltdown.

Inspector Crowe says the time and effort volunteers like Bron put into keeping their clever pooches deployment-ready is an extraordinary thing, and the state has a hugely valuable resource because of it.

"When we have the K9s with us, we breathe a little bit easier. They can do a lot of the heavy lifting in those initial stages because our first job when we get on the ground is to triage the disaster.

"We're there to try and work out where we're going to do the most good in the shortest amount of time. We're trying to get to people who are alive as quickly as we can. That's where the dogs really come into their own."

Bron's beloved Zacc is yet to notch up his first deployment but he's as ready as he ever was.

"He loves it so much, I pretty much stand back and hang onto the lead. He knows he's got it, he's been doing it for so long."

Ryker is still learning but is showing great promise and like Zacc, he's totally up for it.

"He could have decided 'no I don't want to do that' and that would have been fine. They make the decision in the end. If they want to do it, and they love it, then that's what we'll do.

"We're lucky to be in that situation where we can deploy in someone's darkest day."

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