Along with their counterparts from the Fairfax County, Va., Urban Search and Rescue Team, the dogs and their handlers make up the only federally mandated search teams dispatched to international disasters to look for survivors.
"For the handler, it's a pretty stressful situation being so far from home. But the dogs -- they don't know the difference between a block away and 2,000 miles away," he said.
Vasquez is one of two handlers who stayed behind in in case a disaster happens here. He just returned from working the New Zealand earthquake and has also been to the 2010 quake in Haiti and the 2008 hurricanes Ike and Gustav.
The Los Angeles team arrived in Japan on Saturday in a chartered jet carrying tons of supplies and backup personnel such as paramedics and doctors.
"We come totally self-contained. We bring our own food, water, and supplies," Vasquez said. "Dog food too."
The Fairfax team arrived Monday. The two teams set up camp in a school gymnasium, sleeping on cots. They started work this morning in the northern city of Ofunato. The tsunami flattened this area of 42,000 people, leaving behind miles of debris looking like oversized matchsticks where buildings once stood.
It would seem like an impossible task: finding a live person among tons of wreckage. But the dogs' keen sense of smell and hearing can quickly zero in on their target. They are trained to dismiss the carnage and devastation -- to bypass any corpse and ignore the urge to consume any food or water they may come across in their quest to find a living person.
"We train them to leave a piece of steak that they might find, and they take water only from us," Vasquez said.
Tsunami Relief: Network for Good
The dogs train for a solid year before they are paired with a handler. Many of the animals are rescued from shelters, and all become beloved family pets, living with their human counterparts. Maverick was donated to the program from a woman in who thought his high spirits would make him a great search dog.
"He's amazing -- only one of two shepherds that are used," Vasquez said. "Most of the dogs are Labradors."
Vasquez and Maverick worked in Haiti last year, where the dog found survivors buried 20 feet deep in concrete. He burrowed his way into holes and crevices too small for Vasquez, and traversed areas too precarious for humans to walk.
Upon locating a survivor, Maverick will stand by the area and bark. Upon finding the survivor underground, Maverick returned to Vasquez at ground level and barked outside the location.
Whenever the dogs succeed in locating a victim, they are rewarded with a toy to keep them motivated. For Maverick, it's an old 8-inch piece of fire hose with a string attached so he can play tug of war. After a brief break, it's back to work.
Searching is stressful, and initially the teams work 12-hour days. However, by the fifth day, the hours are cut to eight.
"I can tell he's not as peppy," Vasquez said. "I know he's getting tired."
If too many hours go by and the dogs don't find survivors, they tend to lose interest. So the handlers will cover up a colleague with debris and let the dog "find" the person.
"As firefighters, you know what you are going to see and how hard you will work -- they just take it a step further," said Fairfax Fire Capt. Willie Bailey. "If they couldn't handle it, they wouldn't do it."
Once back home, the dogs revert to being a member of the family. Maverick -- who is all business while working and doesn't like to be petted or given treats -- is a lovable companion to Vasquez's two children, ages 1 and 3.
"He's the pet. He likes snacks and is great with my kids," Vasquez said. "He's a very loving dog."