Why SAR only responds with Law Enforcement

“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.

Photo Credit: Inventorchris Flickr via Compfight cc

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.)

Photo Credit: chris.stringfellow55 Flickr via Compfight cc

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.

Stay Found!

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Hot enough for you? K9 Training when it’s too hot to work the dogs.

2385 degrees in Wickenberg. Cave Creek’s pushing 3000. They’re both probably total losses.

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.

Stay Found!

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“How do you train Search Dogs?”

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.

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NEWS RELEASE – Bryce Bumps His Head now in audiobook.


June 30, 2017

Contact:  Robert D. Calkins, Author, (844) 344-4374

Bryce Bumps His Head now available in audiobook form

Second audiobook in the Sierra the Search Dog series, available on Audible.com

AudioCoverSierraWEBnologo(Olalla, WA)—Callout Press announced today that Bryce Bumps His Head, the fourth book in the Sierra the Search Dog series, is now available in audiobook form.  Written by Robert D. Calkins and narrated by Christine Lay, Bryce Bumps His Head is a chapter book intended for beginning readers. It’s the story of a search for a missing Girl Scout in which Sierra the Search Dog must save the day…twice.

“Because this book is for beginning readers, parents might wish to buy both the hard copy and audiobook versions,” Calkins said. “Their child can read along with the audiobook, helping them quickly enhance reading skills and build vocabulary.”

Calkins was especially pleased with the narration by Christine Lay.

“Christine has the perfect voice for youngsters,” Calkins said. “I chose her for this project because she comes across as a storyteller rather than a narrator. Christine is able to be casual and friendly, but still models the kind of language skills our children should be hearing.”

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New Math: When 6 x 2 = 113.

I try not to load folks up with too-frequent blog posts, but there’s a development out of Florida that begs for immediate analysis and wider distribution. It’s the case of two boys who went out by themselves on a small boat, got caught up in a big storm, and have never been found. The investigating agency cites egregious errors by all involved, including the parents who waited two hours before calling authorities to report the boys overdue.

In a land search, such as what Ruger and I do, it’s simple math. If somebody can walk three miles an hour then in two hours they can cover six miles. But that’s six miles in any direction. We seldom know which direction they went. On flat, open ground, a two-hour delay in starting our search gives us an initial search area of 113 square miles. There is no SAR team in the country with enough personnel to cover that kind of ground.

The good news is that in western Washington, it’s hard to walk six miles in any one direction. There are usually trails involved, so we have some idea where to look. If the missing person is off-trail, their pace would slow dramatically and we’d have a better chance of catching up. But the concept remains the same: the sooner we start looking, the less area we have to cover.

There is not an unlimited source of SAR personnel anywhere in the country. Our incident commanders are always making tough choices about probable areas to search, leaving less likely areas to be checked later. If we start searching sooner we can give more detailed (and immediate) coverage to the high-probability areas.

If someone you know to be reliable is overdue, call 911 and get search teams rolling. I’d rather be cancelled half-way to the trailhead than have the person get outside our search area and perish.

That’s also why most SAR volunteers oppose charging for searches, even after the most irresponsible behavior. If people delay calling for fear of getting a bill, we’ll be slower out of the gate and lives will undoubtedly be lost.

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Instant Recall?

I’ve heard it before, but it came up again last week. An assistant instructor at a class saying “I have an instant recall on my dog. I can work it off-lead right next to a busy freeway.”Working a Corner2

Are you sure? I mean, really sure? Is it really possible during the life of any dog to proof it off every single thing that it might ever someday find irresistible? Remember, we expect search dogs to be at least a little bit independent of us. Oh, and by-the-way, the penalty for being wrong is the death of your beloved partner.


Have you proofed it off of cats?

A baseball mascot in a hat.

A creepy clown with tooting horn?

The wafting smell of popping corn.

And beyond irresistible, what about terrifying? A car backfire, a ladder falling, or a firefighter blowing the air horn on their rig. Your dog can bolt while your head is turned looking for the source of the noise.

The question is not whether you think you have an instant recall, but why you’d take the risk. What’s wrong with working your dog on a long-line in an area with hazards?

Despite the instructor’s criticism, I chose to work Ruger on a long-line in a city park adjacent to the city’s main street. He nailed the exercise. He also completely ignored the guy mowing the lawn, the family with the Pekinese, and the two town deer that wandered by. He did so because we can predict those distractions, and we’ve specifically worked on them. Still, on a busy city street there’s the unknown. You can never know every sight, sound or smell that your dog could find irresistable. You don’t know what you don’t know.


The instructor also said “putting my dog on a line would shut him down.” Really?

In a knot-tying class I was once told “if you can’t tie the knot with your gloves on, then you can’t tie the knot.”

If you can’t work your dog on a long-line, then you can’t work your dog.

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Author’s Journey – Managing Book Inventory

In this month’s installment of “my journey as an author” let me share my newfound knowledge of inventory management. As an experienced writer of everything but books, I am still learning many concepts about the publishing world. Like figuring out how many books to keep on hand.

When I retired from the Washington State Patrol, the agency was just hitting its stride on something called “Lean.” It’s not an acronym. Lean means doing business in an efficient and cost effective way. The concept was pioneered by Toyota but adopted by many other organizations. There are many component of Lean, but one is to limit stock on hand. “Inventory” is really money, stacked up in a warehouse. WSP applied Lean to the task of outfitting troopers’ cars, arranging just-in-time delivery of accessories like two-way radios and flashing lights.

For an author/publisher, there are a few more variables. The biggest one is having a successful day at a farmers market or other event. Then you realize next week is an even bigger event like a kid’s fair. You go from fist pumping to nail biting in the blink of an eye.

Print on demand, the genesis of self-publishing, can fix some of that. But print and deliver times for authors are usually just over one week, so a sellout Saturday can put you out of business for the next weekend.

My solution- I will now keep 50 copies of all four books on hand as “inventory.” Even though that’s several hundred dollars in “cash” sitting in my home office, it beats not being able to sell anything at all.

I was a reasonably experienced Public Information Officer prior to my retirement, and kinda knew the ropes. Being an author/publisher makes me a total rookie again, and it’s very refreshing. Keeps my mind active.

Stay Found!

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Obedience Class? Yup! I YouTube’d It.

Full disclaimer: I do not teach obedience classes and I have no financial interest in promoting any class or instructor. I simply believe that live classes result in better-trained dogs and handlers than can be produced by a video. Here's why. 

There is some terrific information available on YouTube, and the goofballs are pretty easy to detect. They generally blow themselves up or cut off a finger while telling you how great they are. (Check out this dude who thinks he’s a firearms instructor.)

So why shouldn’t you use a YouTube video for obedience training your dog? It beats rushing to a class after work, is far cheaper, and if your baloney detector goes off mid-class you haven’t paid $125 for six Thursday nights in advance.

The challenge is socialization. Obedience training is only partly about your dog learning to heel, sit and stay. For those skills to have any meaning, the dog must be able to do them virtually anywhere. (OK, the squirrel exhibit at the zoo might be asking too much.)

A dog with a solid “sit-stay” learned at home via YouTube will be a wild banshee their first time at a city park. They’ll be overstimulated by water spraying in the fountain and squealing kids on the grass. If you have a retrieving breed, God help you if there’s an activity happening that involves a ball.

Let me be clear. There are some terrific dog trainers on YouTube. But for that training to be effective you need to get out into the real world, and work through your lessons with other people, dogs and noises around. That’s the advantage of a brick-and-mortar class location. There will be other dogs, doors slamming, other dogs, an instructor talking loudly, other dogs, squeaky toys and more. Did I mention there will be other dogs present? If you’re lucky a family of four will be there with the kids behaving badly while mom and dad work the dog. Bratty, distracting kids are nuggets of gold at a dog obedience class.

The live instructor has other advantages:

  • They can problem solve with your specific dog. While there are some generalities, every breed and every dog within a breed is different.
  • They can problem-solve with YOU. I don’t care if it’s high-end SAR or just basic obedience- the harder half of the team to train is the human.
  • They can reassure you when you’re doing well. Honest confidence means you’re the leader of the pack, and your dog will respond to your sense of self-assurance.

The final benefit of a live class is that you’ll get to see other handlers struggle with their dogs. I’m not trying to be catty or suggest you engage in one-upmanship. I do suggest you file those challenges (and the solutions you observe) in your memory bank. Trust me- eventually your dog will go through the same phase, and you’ll be better equipped to deal with it quickly.

Live classes are the way to go. Good instructors can be found in almost every locality. Do an internet search or check with a trusted pet store or breeder for a recommendation.

Stay Found!

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Beginning SAR – Doing “Searchy Things”

103A 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.

Stay Found!

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Choke, Pinch or Halti? A better way to leash your dog.

Despite 15 years as a search and rescue dog handler, I’m not an expert on dogs in general. I’m barely an expert on the one I work. But doing this volunteer work has gotten me in the room with some pretty spectacular dog trainers and I try to soak up what I can.

One of the best tips I ever got came from Jean Hampl who runs a school in Gig Harbor, WA. The question always comes up when training basic obedience: Do I use an old fashioned choke collar, a pinch collar, or one of those “gentle leader” types?

Jean has a better idea. She recommends a harness, but then NOT

This ring connects the two shoulder straps with the chest strap. Clip into it instead of the usual spot on the dog’s back.

connecting to the usual spot on the dog’s back. Good harnesses will have a metal ring connecting the two shoulder straps with one that comes up from the chest. It’s not meant to have a leash clipped to it, but it works great. Here’s why: When the dog inevitably takes off running out in front of you, the connection at the chest pulls the dog to the side. There’s no choking, no pinching, and no yanking of the head on those supposedly “gentle” leaders.

If you clip to the usual spot on a dog’s harness, you’re pitting the dog’s strength against yours. After time, you’ll tire and lose. Think Iditarod.

A leash correctly clipped to the front ring of Ruger’s harness.

If you clip to the front ring, simple physics spins the dog back toward you. There’s no need to yank. Just hang on and the dog will correct itself. That’s another key to effective and humane training: the dog controls the correction, not you. (Especially not you if you’re frustrated.)

Because the dog gets pulled to the side, it has less strength to fight the correction. Its body isn’t built to pull hard in that direction. And when you’re ready to let the dog play around and be a goofball, then go ahead and connect to the regular spot on the back of the harness. Then the dog will know it’s OK to pull in search of that wonderful smelling fire hydrant.

Jean’s Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/Hampls-Dog-Obedience-141987085827318/. All credit to her for this tip.

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Stay Found!

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