People frequently ask me how we train search and rescue dogs. They think I’m kidding when my response is “the dogs train us.”

One wet dog
Sierra the Search Dog after a dip in the lake.

In most other human/canine endeavors, the human gives the orders and the canine follows. Sit, heel, stay, go ramp, tunnel, jump are all commands given to dogs, and they execute them beautifully. I love watching a well-practiced obedience or agility team. But it’s one-way communication. The human is giving the orders.

In search and rescue, the dog is in charge and it’s the handler who takes orders. The handler needs to learn when the dog is just roaming, and when their body language says “um….let’s go this way.” They haven’t found the person yet, but they smell something and want to check it out. Just as some humans speak in a soft voice, a dog’s body language can be very subtle. Handlers must learn that language and there ain’t no Rosetta Stone software to help.

Being successful in search and rescue also requires giving up the illusion that we’re smarter than our dogs. They chase cars, chew furniture and hump the leg of a visiting nun. All stupid stuff in our minds. But the woods are the dogs’ domain, and they’re much smarter than us about how to do business there. Honest handlers refer to themselves as the dog’s “ball and chain.” If a search problem goes south, it’s almost invariably because the human thought they knew more than the dog. The dog’s body language was screaming “over here, over HERE!” The human wasn’t listening, and let their superior intellect lead them in the wrong direction.

If you’re smart enough to follow the dog and make the find, it’s time to give the dog their paycheck. The best part of paying your dog is that the IRS can’t touch one red cent of it. In my next post… balls and tax attorneys.

Stay safe.

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