My dog and I are the only K9 search and rescue team on the vast island on which we live. We started our career in southcentral Alaska, which is quite different in climate, topography, and vegetation from the island. We do most of our searching here in dense, mossy forest on undulating, steep topography. In the forest, if a person holds still, it’s incredibly difficult to see them even if you are just a dozen feet away. Southcentral has forest too, but it’s boreal, so it’s thinner and the ground usually trends to either flat or steep, not both within a few dozen yards. The winds on which my dog’s ability to detect scent are pretty straightforward in southcentral, whereas on the island they are….not. To adjust to this change, we’ve been training a lot and calling on the other members of our search and rescue team, the ones who don’t work dogs, to hide in the woods and play “lost person” for us. It’s a good way to either make friends or lose them – literally.
Training a search dog is a great way to spend more time outdoors, as it takes forever to get to a mission-ready point, and once you get there, you have to stay there, so it’s very time consuming and all of that time is spent outdoors wandering through the woods trying to find the people you sent out there to hide. If you get to a mission-ready point, you won’t ever be able to stop because your dog won’t let you. You’ve given him a job, and he loves to do that job and if you don’t let him work, he’ll wonder what he did wrong, why he’s been laid off, and why you are ashamed of him. Ok, so that’s anthropomorphism, but if a working dog doesn’t work regularly, he will get depressed and sad because work is the very essence of his life. I can’t go a week without training before my dog starts acting mopey to let me know he misses his job.
I approach his training on a general cycle; easy, motivational problems giving way to harder, longer ones, and then back to the easy, fun stuff to keep him fresh and excited to work. After we go on a real search, it’s back to easy, fun stuff by default because real searches are much harder and longer than most trainings. It’s been about a month since we went on a real search so my dog was due for a longer “problem,” as we call training missions.
Today, two of my SAR compatriots agreed eagerly to come out and hang out in the forest for a while so that my dog could work. We discussed a general plan and established an admittedly vague search area into which the subjects would venture and find a place to hunker down. Once they radioed that they were in place, I followed with my dog, entering the area from an angle the subjects didn’t take so that my dog wouldn’t be able to trail them in. We used an area in which I’d never been, and I navigated via the general description of the area that my friend Hunter had passed on to me before traipsing off into the woods with his wife to hide in separate spots. It wasn’t an easy search and I had a lot of time to contemplate exactly what I was doing, as we ranged back and forth to try to find a scent in the abruptly windless woods.
Most time spent out of doors is purposeful; we’re going to this peak or running this trail or doing this loop. We know where we’re going, how we’ll get there, and when we’re done. K9 search training is different. Problems like the one we did today involve basically wandering the woods in a loose pattern, trying to keep track of where you’ve been and figuring out where you should go to find the people you know are out there somewhere (a distinct advantage, I admit), hoping that you and your dog perform well to impress the people who have so trustingly ventured into the woods for you. You take cues from your dog and trust him to make the right directional choices while keeping track of where you were when you deviated from your track, so you can come back to that spot if you need to. You also hope like hell that you actually make the find which many times seems impossible when you’re standing in waning light in a maze of game trails in an area you’re not entirely sure your friends are in.
It’s very important for the dog handler to not give in to the anxiety of not knowing where the subjects are and the doubt that creeps in when a training session takes longer than anticipated. The handler’s emotions transmit directly to the dog, and the last thing you want your search dog feeling is anxiety and doubt. The handler has to convey the sense of fun adventure at all times, which is hard when you’re in an unfamiliar environment, all alone, looking for people who are hiding from you, working a dog who is busting his tail ranging far and wide, straining all his systems to do what you’ve asked him to do.
My dog is trending to the older side of middle age (the Clooney side, let’s call it for now….) so his operational working time is not as long as it once was. The topography and vegetation is difficult for a dog to navigate and I have to squash my worry at watching him thrash and buffer his way around, up and down steep hills, leaping over streams. I watch his back legs shake and I know he’s working as hard as he physically can. He easily covers ten or more times the ground I do, and sometimes he’s out of sight and earshot, which worries me because of the many bad things that can happen to dogs out on their own.
Today we scratched our way around a few swamps and up a ridge, I observing the odd way my dog was working. He’d seem to pick something up and then abandon it, which was odd with such fresh scent to work with given that our subjects just entered the area an hour before. A few times he’d raised his head and circled for a better take on whatever whiff he’d encountered, but hadn’t followed up on anything. I could see by his body language that he was out of ideas for the moment so we moved around the swamp to try another angle. I saw him take off down the slope and up the next ridge. I had a good vantage point so I watched him for a while to see if he’d commit to the scent. When I saw him from a ways off make his way out of sight I knew he was closing in on one of the subjects so I followed, down the ridge, across a muddy, shoe-sucking stream, and through a thicket of thorned blueberry bushes, hoping to save him a little extra effort. He’s trained to find the subject and then literally come and get me and lead me there, tripling his workload at a minimum. Usually he’s so much faster than me that he makes multiple trips to and from the subjects. On the far end of the blueberry bushes I stopped, listening with held breath for the faint sound of the five bells he wears that help me keep track of him. A high pitched, elongated yelp rended the air from where he’d disappeared from sight.
When he’s found the subject and is unsure of where I am, he’ll vocalize with a bark so that I’ll respond and he can come get me. I assumed this is what the yelp was so I responded with the “good boy!” as per normal. But then I heard nothing, not the sound of returning bells, nothing, and I was instantly afraid. Was he hurt? Was the yelp the sound of him getting caught in a trap? Did he get impaled on a branch (as has happened before)? If he was hurt, it was bad, as he wasn’t coming back and wasn’t yelping more. I held my breath longer than was probably smart, and peered through the forest to try to get a glimpse. I saw from a long way off his orange search vest, not moving. I yelled out again to see if he’d head my way. The vest disappeared and I heard bells, but it was a while before they approached. When I finally saw him making his way towards me, I breathed easier.
When he got to me he was breathless enough (I could relate) to have trouble barking at me to signal a find, but at the command “show me!” he took off again, back to the subject, to me to bark and urge me on, back to the subject, back to me, until my inefficient two legs got me there so I could tap my unresponsive subject on the shoulder and make her “come alive.”
“I’ve never heard him make that sound before!” she said after giving my dog his play reward. “Me neither,” I had to concede. So I hadn’t done as good a job as I’d thought, masking my insecurity about the search. My dog’s squeaky voice had betrayed his own anxiety.
After a rest, we headed out and found our other subject uneventfully, with my found subject following along and getting a taste of what it’s like to try to solve a scent mystery until we made the find, and together walked back to the cars, enthusing about the experience. I was thrilled that we’d solved a blind search in a difficult, unfamiliar area, and my friends were enthralled with the magic of search and rescue dogs. They do seem to work in a magical way that only a dog handler – and not just any dog handler, but THAT dog’s handler – can really understand. I mentioned that my dog had taken me around the swamp before finding them and my friends slapped their heads. “We forgot to tell you – we spent the afternoon hiking around that area! Good thing he didn’t take you up the mountain, because that’s where we went!”
So, unbeknownst to us, we’d set up the perfect hard problem – old scent interspersed with new, in difficult topography, with wind carrying scent away from us despite our care to start on what was when we started the downwind side of the search area, in imitation of many classic search scenarios in which the subject has wandered around an area for a while, trying to find the way out. Every turn my dog had taken suddenly made sense. It’s a gratifying feeling for a dog handler.