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Disaster Search Dog Training 101
How do you know a pup or young adult is going to grow into a strong disaster search dog? How do you know that dog will be able to pass a FEMA Certification Evaluation and locate victims in the worst possible conditions?
The answer is simple…you do not know. The entire process is a calculated risk. You are betting the odds and while there are things you can look for to improve your chance of success the bottom line is when you are dealing with dogs nothing is for sure. You could even take this thought a little farther and assume that if your group never washes out a dog you are either the most talented group of trainers and handlers in the world, possibly the luckiest or more than likely you are keeping dogs that do not have both paws raised asking to be disaster search dogs.
Our group loves Labrador Retrievers. Without a doubt there are lots of other dogs and breeds that make outstanding disaster search dogs. In our case Labs are what we know best and to increase our odds of success we stay with what we know. There are talented trainers in our system that work with Border Collies. There is nothing more enjoyable that watching a Border Collie work with a skilled and experienced handler. There is another trainer in our system that has a tremendous love and ability to work with German Shepherds. If I could pick a dream team to search for one of my family members any of her dogs would be one of my first picks.
There are Golden Retrievers in our system that are second to none. Malinois are becoming more and more common in our system and doing very well. Of course you can pick their handlers out of a crowd…they usually have bandages all over their arms, but they also have certificates in their back pockets documenting they have passed a Certification Evaluation. There are even a fair number of mutts that do extremely well!!!!!
Now back to Labs…A wise and very gifted trainer explained something to us some time back about a discipline called Field Trial. OMG…they breed, train and work Labs to do basically the same thing we do with our dogs. Go out away from the handler and search for ducks or dummies. In our case the dummies are fellow handlers or awesome volunteer victims, but either way the final outcome has a lot of similarities.
The challenge in picking a dog with a Field Trail background is you do not know if you are looking at a dog with tremendous training or awesome genes. You see a hard working dog for a brief time and that dog could be working well because it has to work. We want a dog that wants to work and that difference is not always easily seen. You also have to remember that if you see a dog working at their home field/pond the dog is usually in familiar surroundings. They are doing something they done many times and could even be patterned for the behavior that is right now allowing you to think…”I want one of these dogs.” Other factors that will add to the importance of your decision are health issues. Exercised Induced Collapse is a serious problem with Labs. The potential pup or young adult you are considering could be a carrier or affected. Hips are another problem not always identifiable when a dog is young and full of energy. Lots of hidden health issues…do your homework, trust your Vet, get second opinions and know the people you are dealing with regarding any dog.
The dog with marginal hips for example could be an awesome animal with tons of drive, but on the rubble something changes. With a driven dog you may not see any outward indication of pain or discomfort, but will see the dog slow down or act differently on rubble. How do you know if this lack of drive on rubble is inexperience, pain or an issue in their head that will always be there?
If you have researched your pup’s parents through sources like OFA records and trust your breeder is honest you are increasing your odds of success. Having other people look at your dog can also help. An experienced handler may see a certain gait or look as the dog is walking. Your Vet can help through experience, education and diagnostic tools like X-rays, blood work and physical exams.
The bottom line is your dog must want to work…if they have problems with their hips or other physical issues they may not want to work on rubble or debris that causes pain. I am told the dog must be at least a year old for X-rays to tell you there is a hip/joint problem. Again, find a good breeder, work with your Vet, talk to others that have purchased dogs from your potential breeder and if at all possible look at the parents. If Mom and Dad are healthy and full out awesome working dogs chances are their pups will follow that lead. If someone was selling me a car I would want to look at any paper work they had relating to repairs and upgrades, but at some point you need to take a test drive. For us a test drive is looking at the pup, look at the parents and talk to people that have seen the parents work. Without asking too much from this pup take them to a rubble site and just go for a walk. Do not push the dog, do not force things onto this piece of clay and above all make sure this afternoon walk is a fun and enjoyable experience for the dog. If you have the right dog they will be all over exploring, looking for trouble to get into and even when tired they will still be bold and hopefully obnoxious. I guess the key behavior is the pup keeping a toy or stick in their mouth. If every time you look at this pup he/she has something in their mouth and climbing on the rubble you may want cancel your vacation because you are going to be short of funds after paying for this pup :>;). If the pup is staying right at your feet, not putting sticks and toys you lay on their path before the walk starts in their mouth and not smiling from ear to ear you should probably keep looking for another dog.
There are lots of indicators you have a strong disaster search dog candidate. Parents, working titles in the pedigree, desire to play and posses a toy…and the more toys that light them up the better and of course their focus on a toy. When you throw the toy onto the rubble or into vegetation they stay after it. No stopping to eat grass, no stopping to try and catch a butterfly and if you have a real winner they will pee on the run or not at all because they do not want to waste any time getting to that toy. Now keep in mind while you are looking for the same thing in a pup or young adult the way a dog shows you this information will vary depending on their age…hope this makes sense.
There is another trait or aspect you should look for, but it is difficult to explain in words. There is a look in the eyes of a good working dog. That look is special and not seen in many dogs. That same look is also intensified 100 fold when a toy is brought into the picture. It is similar to a laser or even what a bullet might look like if we could see it with our eyes as it left a barrel. It is 100% concentration. If you say to yourself, “Yeah, that dog seemed focused on the toy” you have not seen what I am trying to explain. If you are left standing in your tracks in wonder of the commitment you just witnessed and the intensity of the look you just saw that dog needs to come home with you.
How do you find such a dog? Not easy…not easy at all. If you are blessed someone with years of experience will see that same dedication in you and offer you a good dog…take it!!!!! If you are not that blessed you need to do a lot of work and in a sense search for a search dog. You would not accept a dog alerting 50 feet from a victim if the reason for this distance was fear of crossing some rocks or their footing nearer to the victim was not perfect. The same rational exists in your search for a dog…do not accept something that is close. If a dog alerts away from the victim because of an aversion/fear that same dog will also completely walk away from a victim at some point in their career. Basically you want a dog that does not give a darn where you are or where they are when it comes time to alert! You know you have done well in picking a good disaster search dog when no one wants to be a victim for you. Not because your dog bites or is mean, but because he or she beats the crap out of you tugging and pulling to get THEIR toy. You know you have an experienced dog with drive when they beat the victim’s elbows against the sides of the alert barrel or hole in the rubble to get the victim to let go of the toy.
There are also a few pitfalls good people fall into when looking for a strong disaster search dog candidate.
1) You get tired of looking and start to settle for a dog with less drive.
2) You pick a dog you feel is perfect and shows a lot of promise. Things start to break down after training starts. If you are sure it is not a training or health issue you have to make a tough decision. Too many times things do not work out and we stay with a dog that can only give us 80%. You are not doing your victims, Task Force folks, yourself or the system justice by staying with a dog that is not over the top. We are only going to get one chance to do this right. You may never know your dog has walked away from a victim. We owe it to a lot of people to be the best in the business. We have the support, the system in place to provide this support and certainly the obligation and duty to act to do this job and do it well. Do the right thing and move forward with another dog.
Please keep in mind this only Chapter One. We will go from picking the right dog to enjoying your retired disaster search dog before we are done.