There have been two constants in Eric Darling’s life — dogs and service.
He doesn’t remember a single time in his life when he didn’t have a dog, and even recalls photos of him as a baby alongside his dad’s dog. He’s had the volunteer spirit instilled in him his entire life as well. He grew up watching his mother always volunteering with his Boy Scout troops and his schools, and continuing to do so today — despite Eric graduating high school in 1993, his mother still serves the California State Parent Teacher Association.
So it’s no surprise that Eric now serves his community as the founder of Superfit Canine, which offers disaster training in Ventura County, California for search and rescue dogs, including his own four dogs — black labs Mazie, Ben and The Dude, and golden retriever Wyatt.
“For me, it’s always been instilled that you always volunteer whenever you can,” Eric said.
Right before 9/11, he began volunteering for the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, which trained Urban Search and Rescue (USR) dogs for firefighters like himself. Following the terrorist attacks, he became more entrenched in USR. After trying to find more avenues to gain training for himself, he decided to start Superfit Canine in 2014 so he would be able to provide more training for others as well.
Superfit Canine offers these trainings in Ventura County at least once a week, and travels at least once a month to offer them to people outside of the area as well. Each training simulates a disaster to get the dogs used to working in different areas, whether that be fields filled with loose debris to simulate the aftermath of tornadoes, or with loose rocks to simulate the aftermath of an earthquake.
Dogs are especially important in disaster recovery because of their strong sense of smell, and ability to move quickly and cover much more ground than a human could.
“They have four-wheel drive,” Eric said. “They can cover an area so much quicker than it would be to have people power to do the same area. Time is of the essence when we’re looking for someone who is still alive, and getting the dogs out there gives people the best chance for survival.”
Mark Seastrom, who has known Eric for almost a decade through his role as Ventura County Fire Department’s Urban Search and Rescue Officer, was able to attend one of Superfit Canine’s trainings in northern California. Seastrom, who also serves as a captain for Ventura County Fire Department and their regional task force coordinator, said Eric was able to command attention from a large class of canine search specialists from all over the country, while also showing how much he valued his fellow instructors.
“The way he spoke, and with the authority and knowledge that he spoke, people wanted to listen to what he had to say,” Mark said. “It was dynamic and it was fun.”
Most memorable for Eric is when Superfit Canine is able to do demos for people in his community at different festivals in Ventura County.
“It’s so amazing to see the reactions on the kids’ and the adults’ faces, like, ‘Really, this is in our backyard?,’ and that’s really more motivation,” Eric said.
He was once doing a demo for grade school kids when a young boy sat down next to his dog and started having a conversation with him. Eric noticed the boy’s mother crying. She told him that her son was autistic, and that was the first time she had ever heard him speak. He credits the connection between dogs and people to the animals’ ability to sense what people are feeling and then respond to those emotions.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has limited the scope of both the trainings and the location availability for them, Eric has persisted with Superfit Canine’s trainings. He said he is driven to keep going due to how much need there is for the dogs and the difficulty in finding other handlers with this specialty. With each training, he hopes to find the next generation of handlers who are just as dedicated and can eventually take over.
But just like his mother, Eric plans on volunteering for as long as he possibly can.
“I’ve instilled in my brain many, many years ago that this is what you do and this is why you’re doing it,” he said.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Eric? Find local volunteer opportunities.