If you’ve taken a dog to obedience class, you’ve heard the instructor say “dogs don’t generalize.” That’s a fancy way of saying if you teach the dog something in one environment, they might completely forget the command in another environment. The dog that did perfect sits and downs in obedience class is a complete spaz at the vet.
Most handlers expose our search dogs to as many conditions as possible, so that they will know (& remember) how to search regardless of where they are.
Nowhere was that borne out more than in the 2014 search at the SR 530 Mudslide in western Washington. Most of the local dogs that responded were wilderness dogs, with some exposure to rubble. FEMA dogs came in with lots of exposure to rubble, but less so to wilderness. Both groups were thrust into an environment where wilderness and physical structures had been tossed into a mixmaster. Neither group of dogs had searched in exactly that environment: building rubble mixed with mud, seasoned with nails and sharp sheet metal. What was amazing and gratifying is that the dogs adapted much faster than experts have said they would.
My Magnum (Sierra’s younger brother) is a wilderness dog. When we got the opportunity to search at Oso I took him to a big pile of debris. He immediately hopped off and went over to the brush on the edge of the slide area. That’s because he’s used to finding subjects in the brush.
“Hey Magnum, we’re searching over here today.” He came back to the pile and we never had to discuss it again. I’m told that virtually every other dog adapted that quickly. We taught something to the experts during the Oso response. Old dogs can learn new tricks. What none of us could have guessed is that the dogs could learn those tricks in real time, while doing them.