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First Canine Test
February 10, 2017
The time finally came around for Lady and I to take our first test. The search team set up a 40 acre area, recruited a stranger to hide in the woods and printed off maps. Several of the more experienced team members would be serving as my evaluators.
I arrived at the site right on time. I had been warned not to be early. They didn’t want me to see them setting things up. I was terrified. ‘Butterflies in my stomach’ was an understatement. Gremlins were putting on a full production of Riverdance in my gut.
I stepped out of the truck and stuck Lady in her crate. I rechecked the contents of my backpack for the gazillionth time. Everything was still safely stowed in pockets and the water bottles were all full. I left my pack by Lady’s crate and walked over to my teammates.
They asked if I was ready. My mouth was so dry I could barely answer, but I squeaked out a yep. I was handed a map and introduced to the ‘Sheriff’ for the day. One of my teammates was assigned to play the part of Sheriff, so that I could practice an important part of the search. I needed to show that I knew the right questions to ask when I arrived at a search. I also needed to show that I could answer questions while I was searching with my dog.
The Sheriff told me that a person was lost and had been missing for a few hours. He explained that my search area would cover about 40 thickly wooded acres. I explained that my dog would be working off leash and told him how I would know when she found someone. She was trained to locate the lost person, run back to me and bark, and then she would take me back to the lost person.
I went over to Lady’s crate and got her out. She was bouncing around like a little crazy crack puppy. It was all I could do to squirm into my backpack as she dragged me across the field to start our search. Thank God obedience wasn’t part of the test. I would have failed before we made it out of the parking lot.
We reached the start of our search area and I told the evaluators and the Sheriff where I planned to start and what my strategy was for searching the 40 acres. There was a trail that looped around most of the search area. I chose to follow that trail and then cover any remaining area. I asked Lady to sit and I put her orange search vest. It was like trying to dress a greased pig. I unclipped her leash and told her to search. She took off like a rocket. She ran around us in big circles as we walked down the trail.
During the whole hike, the Sheriff asked me questions about my dog and search and rescue. It was really hard to answer the questions, focus on Lady and remember where we were. When we were about a third of the way around the trail, Lady started hopping around on some piles of dirt. Something was different about her. I knew something was different, but I wasn’t sure what it was.
She hopped around and I told everyone something was different. I thought maybe she was trying to find a rabbit or a squirrel. She loved chasing little critters. I was just about to yell at her to get back to work, when she came bounding over and barked at me. I was so stunned I didn’t know what to do. She barked a couple of times and took off. When she was about 20 feet away from me, I figured out what was going on and followed her. She ran across the piles of dirt and I saw her take a flying leap into a bush. When she landed I heard a big “Ooomph!” followed by laughter. She had found our lost person. She had landed the flying leap directly on the person’s stomach. I was ecstatic! I tossed her the golf club and we both did a happy dance. We had passed! I couldn’t have been more elated!
1. Always remember having your dog with you is a privilege not a right. Act accordingly. Ask permission before you take your dog into a building or facility. There is absolutely no reason for your SAR dog to go to some places with you, other than you want an excuse to take them and you seek the attention that having them brings. Lots of humans (other SAR responders included) don’t like dogs. Respect that. Only take your dog to dog friendly places or to places they actually need to be.
2. The dogs often become the center of media/public attention. They shouldn’t be the star of the mission, but they often attract attention. The mission should always be center stage. I’m not saying that you should hide in a corner, but if when you are being interviewed you can get out the message of the mission and SAR in general, you will be doing everyone a service. Be sure and mention and thank the other responders involved. Even if your dog made the find, you didn’t do it without help.
3. Clean up after yourself. If your dog potties, clean it up. Immediately. Don’t allow your dog to potty near base, rehab, the cars etc. No one wants to smell that all day and it’s pretty disrespectful. Absolutely do not let your boy dog mark structures or vehicles unless you are in a disaster setting and you have no options.
Carry a pet hair roller. If your dog gets hair on someone or something – offer to get it off! No one signed up for extra dog hair duty but you!
4. Keep your dog on leash at all times unless you are actively searching or training. The dog doesn’t need to be in the middle of the base of operations or rehab. They need to be resting so that they can go back to work as soon as possible. Put them in a crate and let them rest.
Again, not everyone loves your partner. If they go sprinting like an idiot up through an operation, you are not endearing yourself to the rest of the team. SAR is not a social gathering. This is serious stuff. I don’t mean that you can’t have fun, but do remember that you aren’t there to socialize your dogs.
5. Keep your dog in a crate. A dog that is tethered to something by a leash is not really resting, can easily chew through the lead or even slip a collar. Be safety conscious and crate your dog. It will also help other responders feel more comfortable with their presence during a mission. Your dog should not be barking like an idiot while they are crated. Once in a while OK, but not continuously. Managing an incident is difficult enough without a distraction like that!
6. When you arrive on scene, you dog should already be in its crate. Having your dog bouncing around in the front seat while you pull in to a search will not inspire confidence in those you are working for.
7. Once in a great while, your dog can do some good as a therapy dog while on a mission. If you can tell someone is having a hard time coping, offer to let them pet the dog. Don’t just let the dog get in their space. They may not want to see your dog. Also note that you don’t want all of your dog’s energy being used up by this, but you can find some balance between helping responders deal with an incident and getting your dog some good rest.
8. Remember, no one else in the group signed up to be your dog’s handler. You did. Expect to have more work to do. You need to take care of yourself and your partner. If others offer to help great, but don’t expect people to schlep your extra gear around, or set up your rehab space, or decontaminate your dog. Those are all YOUR responsibilities. Take care of them and don’t whine about it!
As I said earlier, these SAR lessons were handed down to me by many other, much more experienced handlers than I. They have served me well and I hope they will help you as well. Remember one bad experience can overshadow a whole lot of good ones.
Rules for all SAR responders:
1. Listen more than you speak. No amount of storytelling will make you look like a high quality responder. Let your actions speak for you. When you do a good job people will seek you out and ask questions if they are interested. By listening you give yourself an opportunity to learn more about the people you are working with. If they want to know more about you, let them ask. Then they will actively listen while you speak. If you constantly spout stories, eventually they will tune you out.
2. Be flexible. We work in a constantly changing environment. If that makes you crazy, SAR is not the place for you.
3. Be overly prepared. I don’t necessarily mean have a ton of gear. I mean be exceptionally well trained. With the right training and attitude you can overcome most any obstacle and keep yourself out of trouble. If you are well trained, you will also have the right gear to get the job done, not just lots of gear.
4. Always looks for the lessons from each response. If you leave a search or exercise thinking, “Wow that was exactly like the last one we did and I didn’t learn anything new”, you’re not paying attention. The lessons may or may not have to do with SAR, but there are lessons in each response. By paying attention to the lessons we can become better and better as responders and as human beings.