K9 Ruger displays his “trained indication” by sitting in front of Robert after making a find. This is how the dog says “found ’em!”

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.

  • What odor you want it to find, and
  • How to tell you they’ve found it.

Those two things are easy to teach, and can be mastered in a few months. Dogs are born knowing how to find things with their noses, so we just have to give them the right odor. And dogs can tell you “found it!” any number of ways, from a sit, to a down, to a jump, to even tugging a toy on the handler’s belt.

For the human, there are both skills to learn and an attitude shift that has to occur. Wilderness navigation, first aid, improvising shelters and radio procedures are among the skills that have to be mastered. But the attitude shift is the hardest. That requires turning off your human brain (to some extent) and yielding to the dog’s superior skill in the field.

It’s easy to say “the dog’s in charge” when searching. It’s obvious why that should be the case. But learning to actually free one’s mind and let it happen is a challenge that can take new handlers months or years.

The human tendency is to try and outthink the missing subject. We’re almost always wrong. We also think we’re top-of-the-food-chain and thus smarter than our dogs. In the field, we’re almost always wrong on that count, too.

When searching, the dog is simply following its nose, which doesn’t lie but which CAN be influenced. Handlers must learn to mute both their physical voices and their body language, so that the dog remains uninfluenced by the human idea of what a missing subject “ought to do.” Only then can the dog be truly in charge.

“I don’t believe my 78-year old dementia patient who walks with a cane could go up that trail,” says the handler. But if the dog wants to go up the trail, you go. 78-year old dementia patients will surprise you, and their families will lie to you about their physical capabilities, which is a blog post for another day.

How do we train search dogs? The reality is that they train us.

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