One of my favorite conferences each year is the Las Vegas rendezvous of the Public Safety Writers Association. PSWA is a small group, made up of about half cops (who want to be writers) and half mystery writers (who need to know how cops operate.) The program is divided between the two groups, with writers teaching writing and then cops teaching police work.
Because it’s a small group, everyone gets to know each other. That enhances both the fun and the learning. Almost everyone at the conference has some knowledge or experience to share, and does– willingly and graciously, with not a hint of snooty.
Not everything has to be bigger to be better. This is my group. These are my people. If you’re a writer of mysteries, check them out at http://www.policewriter.com. Please also consider joining us in July 2019.
You’d be surprised how often search and rescue dog handlers are approached by distraught pet owners, asking for help locating their beloved-but-missing pet.
This breaks our hearts, partly because we can’t imagine what it would be like for our own K9 partners to run (or be taken) away. But our hearts break mostly because we can’t help.
To get our dogs to reliably find humans, we teach them to NOT alert on animals. We’d never get far searching the woods if our dogs followed every deer or rabbit that toddled through. In fact, a dog that won’t stop chasing deer or rabbits will likely be washed out as a SAR dog.
In this case, your best options develop before your pet ever goes missing. License and microchip them as soon as you get them. Make sure to keep both the license and the microchip numbers where you can find them perhaps years later. HomeAgain gives you a refrigerator magnet where you can write the animal’s name and microchip number. I keep Ruger’s on a desk organizer in my home office.
Finally, if you announce publicly that your dog is lost, be cautious of those who offer to find your dog for an up-front fee. You have no real way of knowing the person’s qualifications or success rate. When a human goes missing, the sheriff’s office makes sure that only qualified searchers are on the case. When your pet is missing, that level of protection is not in play.
Getting to meet fans at dog-friendly events means I also get to see every kind of dog collar, leash and harness. I always cringe when I see big dogs on those retractable leashes.
There’s nothing wrong with the leashes themselves. The ones I’ve seen are well-manufactured, comfortable, retract as promised and don’t break. The issue isn’t the leash. It’s your dog’s ability to go from zero to sixty (Squirrel!) in the 20 feet of line they get from a retractable leash.
A friend who is far and away the best dog handler I know suffered serious injuries when he was pulled down as his German Shepherd hit the end of its 20 foot long retractable leash. We’re talking broken ribs and shoulder surgery.
Math majors will remember that if you double the speed, you quadruple the force. So if the dog has a bunch of extra distance to build up speed, you risk becoming the down payment on some orthopedist’s new BMW.
We’ve all seen the news reports. Somebody does something incredibly dumb, like attempting a solo hike across the Cascade Mountains in winter. People immediately get hopping mad. “That person should have to pay for the cost of the response.”
Makes sense, but like so many things that make sense, there is another view.
If families believe they will be charged for the cost of a search and rescue mission they will likely delay reporting until there’s no other choice. That delay can have serious implications for everybody involved.
If the subject is injured, they are continuing to suffer. If their condition is dire, they could die while waiting for help that hasn’t yet been called.
For searchers, any delay means a much larger search area to cover. If the person is overdue by four hours, we have to search everyplace they could have walked in four hours. If they’ve been gone 24 hours, then we have to search anyplace they could have walked in 24 hours. The search area gets bigger faster than any of us would imagine.
For those reasons, most credible SAR teams are opposed to charging for even the dumbest mistake. That would have a chilling effect on families who legitimately need our services.
That’s not to say a SAR team wouldn’t take a donation from an embarrassed subject, but they won’t ask.
There’s maybe only four or five of you at the training. One person will do X, somebody else will do Y, it’s no big deal, right?
No. No matter how many people are at a training session, there needs to be both an in-brief and out-brief (after-action or “hotwash”) at every training day. It might seem overly rigid, but it sets a tone and establishes a best practice for when things get bigger.
The in-brief makes sure everyone knows everything that will happen that day. It’s pretty common to start a training session with one plan, but then switch people around depending on how the individual evolutions go. How can you switch people around if you haven’t briefed everybody on everything that’s happening? I’ve seen more than one training evolution get derailed because the “fill-in” didn’t know what was expected.
The out-brief is just as important, even if there are only a few people at the event. Everyone should be offered the chance to explain:
One thing that went well.
One thing they learned.
One thing they’ll improve or do differently in the future.
Even at small trainings, nuggets of gold can be found. Because there are fewer of you, someone is more likely to notice great work and offer positive feedback. When there are problems, people are more likely to speak up in a small group rather than “in front of everybody.”
If you’re an ops leader or training chief, don’t be afraid of looking officious. Get your people doing in-and-out briefs. They’re gold.
A quick unscheduled post here because some video came my way that’s worth seeing.
The point of the video is a joke, watching dogs dance around because they’re wearing booties for the first time. But there’s a legitimately important point buried in all the fun video.
If your dog ever gets a foot injury, it’ll likely need some form of bandage or boot. Better to get it used to booties now so that you’re not dealing with an already-injured dog who’s trying to shake that funny-feeling thing off its foot. Don’t get four of the $36 dollar kind or whatever the pet stores sell.
You can get some decent quality sled-dog booties for less than $5 each at Nordkyn.com, a firm which makes sled dog accessories. Those are adequate for acclimatizing, or getting your dog as far as the vet.
When my dog isn’t injured, I use the booties to carry spare batteries for my GPS and two-way SAR radio. I’ve got one or two in my first aid kit as well.
Full credit to The Pet Collective for the video. Visit their site, like their page, buy their stuff. I’m not trying to rip anything off. It’s just a fun video that makes a good point about dogs.
The phrase “Go with God” has been around for eons, and certainly isn’t bad advice. But a dyslexic dog trainer I once knew gave me some good advice for working with K9s. “Go with Dog.”
We as humans have our preconceived notions about what we want our dog to do. When starting out, the people training us are Gods themselves, and we want our dog to do everything the way their dog does it.
The most important thing you can do with your dog is go with its flow, and adapt what it does naturally to what you’re trying to accomplish.
The best example is when rewarding your dog. Many successful handlers recommend toys and play. But some dogs are intimidated by lots of loud squeaky voices and a loud squeaky toy. If your dog will reliably work for food, or for quiet praise, then go with that.
Likewise for the dog’s trained indication. Many folks try to force the dog to sit, or down, or tug a toy. It’s OK to try a few things in the beginning, but if the dog likes something else, go with it. So long as you and an evaluator can recognize the behavior and it happens only when the dog has made a find, then it’s a perfectly acceptable trained indication.
SAR needs to be fun for the dog. If you take the fun out by trying to make the dog do something it doesn’t enjoy, you’ll end up with a less enthusiastic search dog and you’ll be a less effective search team
Go with God? Well, maybe. But for sure: Go with Dog.
“My husband didn’t come home from his hunting trip this weekend. Can you go look for him?” said the anxious wife into the unmonitored SAR voice mailbox.
The answer is an unequivocal “Yes!” but credible SAR units only respond at the direction of law enforcement. The anxious wife should have called 9-1-1 as soon as it became clear her husband was grossly overdue. Likewise, I have personally taken calls from distraught families who wanted my team to search for their teenage runaway. I know they felt let down when I had to tell them to call the police.
In Washington and most states, law enforcement is by law in charge of ground-based search and rescue missions. It makes sense- sometimes the most benign SAR mission can turn out to be a homicide.
Credible SAR teams affiliate with a county, and sheriff’s deputies filter missing person reports. They decide when SAR teams, and which types, should be called in to search.
Watching Facebook and other sources around the country I see what appear to be freelance SAR teams. Worse, they’re occasionally making what appear to be inflated claims about their success rate. I’ve even heard of, but not personally verified, that some try to charge families or offer contracts at the time of searching. That’s a longer topic for another post but there is opposition among most SAR teams to charging for a search. (If a family wants to offer a donation, they’ll take it. But they don’t ask at a time when a family might be emotionally vulnerable.)
If you know of someone who isn’t where they’re supposed to be, the correct next step is to call 9-1-1. The deputy or officer will call out only those resources that make sense. They probably won’t call mountain rescue for someone overdue after a whitewater rafting trip.
Likewise if you’re in the unenviable position of reporting a loved one missing, be very skeptical of a freelance team that contacts you after hearing news reports. Before signing a contract or agreeing to pay up front for services, ask the deputy handling your case why that team isn’t on the county’s roster of official responders.
And after all that, let me say with all my heart that I hope we never meet under such circumstances.
Depending on your locale, there are a few weeks each year when you have to be very careful about overheating your dog. Here in the Pacific Northwest, there is a limited period of really hot weather, so neither the dogs nor human handlers really have time to acclimate. But there are lots of other skills that K9 handlers must acquire or maintain. Hot weather weeks can be a great time to polish up other skills, and let the dogs take it easy. Here are a few ideas.
GPS training. You can probably break this down into several training days. How to find a waypoint. How to verbally transmit (say) a waypoint over the radio. How to change coordinate systems (UTM to Lat/Long). How to rename a GPS track so it’s unique to you, so that the Ops Leader can find it among all the other downloaded tracks. Do you know how to change batteries, how to change the map chip under the battery, and how to tell when the chip has slipped loose?
Radio procedure and field radio maintenance. How to change batteries or replace a broken antenna. Some radios have “banks” of frequencies, and changing banks frequently involves odd buttons, a medicine man, and a full moon. Do you know how to take the microphone off your walkie-talkie in case the cord splits? How radio waves work? Oh, and what the heck is a CTCSS tone?
K9 First Aid. I hate these classes, but they’re necessary. I can watch a TV show where a human gets a chest tube without anesthesia, but a dog with a broken toenail turns me to jelly. You can probably find a vet who will teach the class at little or no cost. Some military bases have vets or vet techs and will loan them as a benefit to the community.
Pack pack, what’s in your pack?! Sit around and share ideas for what you carry and how you organize your pack. For example, I’ve stopped carrying a stove and dehydrated food. I carry MREs and heaters. An MRE can be eaten cold and right now, while a dehydrated meal takes hot water and ten minutes to prepare. Yes, MREs are heavier than dehydrated meals, but I can carry less water and don’t need a stove or fuel at all. Along with being very light, the MRE heaters are paper thin which saves space in my pack.
Incident Command System. This is more than a dry on-line class from FEMA. It’s a really good way to manage both searches and routine workouts. Executed correctly it keeps things organized and everybody knowing what they’re doing. You can probably get a free class from your local fire department, to include a tabletop exercise for practice.
Who’s checked out and qualified to drive your communications van? Your insurance provider might be interested in this one.
And if you’re in a climate where it gets super cold some weeks of the year, flip this schedule around. Do the classes inside if being outside would risk frost nip for you or the dogs.
When I do author appearances the most frequent question I get is also the most obvious: “How do you train search dogs?”
The honest answer is that the dog is by far the easier half of the team to train. It’s usually the human that’s the problem.
Of course there are always going to be dogs that simply don’t enjoy “the game” of search and rescue. They’re content to hang around the house and be a pet, or do obedience, or agility. No amount of training will make a dog that doesn’t want to play the game into a successful search dog.
But assuming you have a suitable dog that enjoys using its nose, you only have to teach the dog two things.