When you think of second chances and perseverance, Oprah Winfrey, Stephen King or the mythological phoenix may come to mind.
Add Bonus, a black Labrador retriever with the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, to that list: He moved on from a dismal failure in one career to excellence in his current one.
Bonus was born in 2018 at an Oregon nonprofit that trains service and companion dogs, but things did not pan out for Bonus in that line of work. “He was too rowdy to be a service animal,” his handler, district firefighter Tony Vasta, said.
The dog was also too hard to handle as a pet and was booted out of foster care, so the Oregon organization sent him to the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF), a Southern California nonprofit that rescues, recruits and trains dogs, and partners them with firefighters and other first responders to find people buried alive in the aftermath of a disaster.
Bonus was trained and evaluated for 10 months at the SDF center in Santa Paula. He quickly took to his new calling as a search dog and was placed with California Task Force 4 of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Con Fire is a member of the task force, and Vasta volunteered to supervise Bonus, whose official title is “live find search and rescue K9.”
“Search dogs have explosive energy and a laser-like drive above and beyond any normal dog,” SDF representative Denise Sanders said. “Bonus does everything at full speed, and he has no fear.”
Those attributes were on full display during a February session at the district training grounds in Concord.
On a signal from his handler, Bonus morphed into a black streak that darted from 100 yards away into a massive pile of rubble and zeroed in on the volunteer stationed within. There was no sniffing around the pile, no wasted motion. In seconds, displaying a stunning example of focus and athleticism, Bonus found the “victim.”
Vasta also went through an SDF evaluation to determine if he was a fit with Bonus. “We interviewed Tony to make sure he understood that dogs are not fire trucks,” Sanders said. “He also had to understand the frustration that Bonus may go years without deployment to a disaster scene.”
At the end of the two-week evaluation period, with handlers spaced around the training center, Bonus was released by the trainers to find the handler he loved, and the dog ran directly to Vasta. They’ve been a team ever since, and not only at Fire Station 70 in San Pablo. Bonus lives with Vasta, who pays for the feeding and upkeep of the dog out of his own pocket. SDF does pay the veterinarian bills.
“To be the first search dog handler in the history of our district means a lot to me,” Vasta said. “Bonus has become my best friend.”
FEMA search dogs undergo training throughout their careers to maintain top deployment readiness. “We have a gym on the premises, and the dogs go through a fit-to-work program, including strength tests and a sprint test,” Sanders said.
“If you can believe it, our dogs clock in at an average of 18 miles per hour in a sprint on flat ground.”
Bonus was FEMA certified in April and will be recertified in 2024. He has yet to be deployed to a disaster site, according to David Watson, Con Fire battalion chief and task force leader.
One might imagine that the name Bonus comes from his “bonus” second career, but his name was assigned at birth. From his Oregon litter three years ago, folks were expecting a certain number of puppies. A few hours later, the volunteers returned to check on the litter and found there was an extra or “bonus” puppy. The name Bonus stuck from then on.
Search dogs retire, and some dogs don’t make it in the field. “Our Lifetime Care Program assures that the dogs will never go back to the shelter. They can do other types of conservation detection, but they are never used for hunting,” Sanders said.
But living in a retirement home is an option that Bonus will never have to consider. “He’s staying with me forever,” Vasta said.
National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, accepts donations through its website at https://searchdogfoundation.org/.