Roger, a Failed Drug Dog, Becomes a Hero of Taiwan’s Quake Response

The dog picked through boulders and rubble in the Taiwanese national park, looking for victims trapped or buried by the rockslides that had followed a 7.4-magnitude earthquake.

Roger, a Labrador retriever, stopped, sniffed and moved on. But then he circled back and sniffed again, seemingly confused.

Roger was trained to look for survivors, but his handler, Lee Hsin Hung, suspected that this time he had found something else. He scrambled to where Roger was standing.

“As I got closer, I saw the leg of the deceased,” Mr. Lee said in an interview.

Roger’s discovery led rescuers to recover the body of a 21-year-old woman from the rubble on Saturday, taking the death toll of Taiwan’s strongest earthquake in 25 years to 13. More than 1,000 more were injured in the disaster (but strict building codes and public preparedness may have helped prevent an even greater catastrophe).

In the days since, Roger, one of four search and rescue dogs deployed by the Kaohsiung Fire Department at Hualien’s Taroko National Park, has emerged as an unexpected star of the recovery operation. His playful antics, along with his background as a failed drug-sniffing dog, have captured hearts and offered moments of levity for a country still reeling from the disaster.

At one news conference, he attempted to gnaw on a reporter’s microphone. During another, as Mr. Lee commended his bravery, he tore apart a soft toy, scattering stuffing across the floor.

Roger was trained to sniff for drugs for customs, but he failed out of the program for being “too friendly and boisterous,” Mr. Lee said. When Roger was a year old, Mr. Lee chose him from among numerous rejected puppies to be part of the Kaohsiung emergency response team. His demeanor, which had ended his drug-sniffing career, made Mr. Lee think Roger could be an excellent search and rescue dog.

“He was very agile, his movements were very bold, and he didn’t let anything fence him in,” Mr. Lee said. “He thought he could overcome any difficulties,” he added, and was not daunted by heights or unfamiliar locations.

Since his rise to stardom, Roger has been dubbed a “little hero” by the Taiwanese media and has appeared on talk shows to show off his skills.

Roger’s fame will most likely be short-lived. He will retire in the second half of this year when he turns 9, Mr. Lee said, in accordance with Kaohsiung Fire Department’s policies.

“He’s already old, after all,” Mr. Lee told local reporters, “coming back from the search and rescue mission, when he jumped into the car, he was a little unsteady and I had to support him.”

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