I recently added a picture to my FB site showing Magnum and me at Olympic National Park during snow training. Magnum is not an avalanche dog but needed to be taught that missing subjects can be under snow. The missing person might have dug a snow cave, or expired of natural causes prior to a snowstorm and are now covered.
That brings up the larger K9 training issue of generalization. A dog can learn to perform an act in one setting, and then completely forget that behavior in another setting. It requires handlers to expose their dogs to a variety of settings to be able to use them in all kinds of emergencies.
In a disaster, for instance, the dog might pair up with a neighborhood CERT team to search homes or local businesses. The first time I tried that in an exercise, Magnum didn’t have a clue what to do. He’d always searched in the woods, not inside a building. The CERT Team was training in an old dormitory, so once I’d walked Magnum onto a couple of “victims” and rewarded him, he understood. The first floor was rough, but by the third floor he was searching rooms like he’d done it all his life. We had to add that specific behavior to his memory banks.
Water search is another area where we need to expose the dog to the environment. The water is glassy and dogs don’t recognize that drowning victims can be under the surface. We give a scuba diver the dog’s toy and have them walk in the water and duck down while the dog watches. Then, we put the dog in a boat and head out. If the dog gives the slightest alert of the diver’s presence, the diver pops up and plays with the dog.
It’s also important for the handler to recognize the dog might alert differently in different environments. I learned this in a boat by almost being dragged overboard by Magnum. I tried handing him his all-important ball and he promptly spit it out, preferring instead to go over the side and play with the diver.
Magnum now believes that big rubbery people in black form-fitting clothes and floppy shoes are his new best friends. Mary Ann and I had him for a walk on the beach near Port Angeles a few years back, when a couple of scuba divers came ashore. They couldn’t understand why this dog went nuts, ran back to me and sat, then returned to circle them endlessly. Fortunately, I had his ball with me and was able to appropriately reward him for his “find.”
In my next post, accidental finds and deliberate rewards. It’s a debate.