PETALING JAYA: They say angels appear in many forms — some in uniforms or even covered in fur.

Recalling the recent Batang Kali landslide tragedy, which claimed 31 lives including many children, firefighter Thivagaran Yutaman said he had the longest search and rescue (SAR) operation with his tracker dog Frankie, a six-year-old English Springer Spaniel.

“It is the most challenging task at ground zero. I did not go home throughout the 10-day operation,” he told The Star.

Thivagaran, 45, who spent most of his 22-year career at the K9 unit, said the gruelling operation involved combing through deep and wet earth.

“Amid all the challenges and hardships, I’m thankful that Frankie and I managed to find five victims.

“For me, it is a satisfaction be- cause the bodies were recovered and their families can move on and have some closure,” he added.

Talking about his canine companion, Thivagaran said Frankie is sweet and cuddly in nature when he is not on duty.

He noted that his furry partner – his second dog after the first one, Joe, died of old age – is considered young in the field.

“He is highly focused, moves very fast to detect victims who are drowned, caught in rubble, trapped in landslides or others,” he said.

Salbuddin Salleh, 33, who has been caring for Blake since the dog was a puppy at four, said the English Springer Spaniel did not faint during the SAR operation, as reported in some media.

“Blake was exhausted after working for a long period of time, but he did not faint,” he clarified.

Recalling the day, Salbuddin said he saw Blake’s movements slow down after combing ground zero for some time.

“He was also salivating more than usual. It is a sign of exhaustion, so I quickly led him out for some rest,” he said.

Tracker dogs, according to Salbuddin, should not be made to work for long hours.

“As a trained cadaver dog that has a high level of focus, it should not be made to work for more than 30 minutes at a time,” he said.

Recalling his experience after the Batang Kali landslide, Salbuddin said he was thankful that a doctor from the Federal Territories’ Veterinary Department was there to check on the dogs.

“Dr Nur Izzati Aman did a medical check-up on them, took their temperatures and provided vitamin injections for them before and after the operation,” he revealed.

Having spent the last five years together, Salbuddin said he shares a close bond with Blake, who is a cheerful, active and spirited dog.

“We know each other well, we work and play together,” he added.

Selangor Fire and Rescue Department director Datuk Norazam Khamis said tracker dogs are important assets because they help to speed up any SAR mission.

“Not only do they save lives, they can also locate bodies and trace evidence in investigations,” he said.

Norazam said the department trains dogs for various purposes, including fire investigation, wilderness SAR and urban disaster SAR.

When asked, Norazam said tracker dogs usually retire at the age of eight, but some stay on until 10 years of age if they are healthy and show excellent performance.