A solid foundation in the basics is critical to many endeavors, but especially K9 Search and Rescue. The single biggest mistake made by new handlers is trying to move ahead too quickly.
“We popped out in the woods behind the house and I turned the dog loose. He found my neighbor OK, but never came and got me. He’d been doing that part just fine, and now…nothing. What happened?”
What happened is that new handler got too far ahead of him or herself, and was out back trying to do “searchy things.” Small problems, supposedly easy, to move the dog ahead between official training days. But without a mentor around, the problem goes off the rails.
Here’s why this continues to happen with teams everywhere: new dog handlers are enthusiastic about getting certified, going on searches, and helping their community! Those are exactly the attributes I want my teammates to have! I’m not criticizing “searchy things,” but I do want to lay out how risky it can be to freelance during the early part of your training. Something as simple as having an untrained hider do something unexpected and scare your dog can set back your training by months.
Soooo, what do I do there, Mr. Bob?
Walk your dog. That’s all. Until your mentor tells you to do otherwise, just walk your dog in the environment it’ll be searching in. Do that as many nights a week as you can spare.
- If you’re a trailing handler, walk around town. Around construction sites. Busy intersections. Bus stops. Restaurant exhaust fans.
- If you’re an air scent handler, take your dog for hikes in the woods. Let it get used to all the smells it’ll encounter in the wilderness. Let it get used to flushing birds or spooking deer. Figure out early if it’s one-a those dogs that has to roll in stinky stuff. (Ask your mentor about crittering and their philosophy for discouraging it.)
- If you’re doing cadaver work, take your dog to both wilderness and urban areas, as well as inside buildings. Get it used to going from room to room to room in quick succession. The only two buildings your puppy has likely been in are your house, and the vet’s office. (We all know what happened at the vet’s office.)
This is search training. Your dog will never search in a sterile environment. There will always be coyote poop in the woods, and restaurant exhaust along city streets. The best and safest thing you can do to advance your dog’s career in SAR is desensitize it to as many distractions as possible. That way, when you do get to searching, you’ll know it can focus and do its job.
Yes, it’s magic seeing your dog’s head snap when they catch the scent of a subject. Every handler out there wanted to do “searchy stuff” before they were ready. But along with desensitizing your dog, going for walks is fun and builds a great bond between the two of you. That is search training and it will pay off.
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