Puppy SAR training in photos

Setting up the runaway problem: the toy hand-off. Edna has made it clear that she prefers her floppy disc over other toys. David was that day’s volunteer. (I think he must have spied a squirrel in this shot …)
David runs away, teasing Edna with her toy. I hold Edna, asking her "Where is he? Where did he go?" She is a nimble little thing, and I have to be careful or she pops straight up in the air to escape.
David runs away, teasing Edna with her toy. I hold Edna, asking her “Where is he? Where did he go?” She is a nimble little thing, and I have to be careful or she pops straight up in the air to escape.
I run with Edna, (holding my pack so it doesn’t slap me to death!) and David plays with her as soon as she arrives. She likes to tug for awhile, and also to retrieve the thrown disc.
The reward! Fun, fun and more fun.
Volunteer's-eye-view of training a search dog!
Volunteer’s-eye-view of training a search dog!

Now that Edna has a couple of weeks’ worth of puppy runaways behind her, I plan, next week, to teach her the complete, very important runaway/refind package: the recall to me and her “alert” signal, which is a bark — which I taught her to give on command, a few months ago.

The runaway/refind is the most critical part of the wilderness airscent search dog’s training. Pretty much any pet dog can find a human via scent. A certified SAR dog must, in any situation, under any duress, return and “tell” the handler it has just found a person. This often is challenging for several reasons: rough terrain can be tough to power through; also, when the dog is tired after several hours of searching, it can be difficult to remember a trained behavior sequence; and, often the dog must find its handler by scent, because the lost person they just found is out of sight of the handler, and on the downwind side – the “wrong” side.

After “telling” the handler with some sort of signal — a jump, a bark or a sit, for example — the dog must remember how to return to the lost person and lead the handler in, no matter how many times it takes to run back and forth between the two people.

We practice the runaway/refind sequence in every search training session to keep it strong, to assess any weaknesses, and also – because the dogs LOVE them, and it’s part of a great reward system.

— All photos by my son, Jackson, who has been hiding for search dogs for since he was a baby! He now is an official member of Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad, and accompanied me, my SAR dog Levi and our team on Jackson’s first actual search this summer (2014)

Edna enters the “teen” months

It’s time for an Edna update!

Edna effortlessly charms the Alaska Airlines staff at Ketchikan airport.

She has been busy, these two months she has been a Landis household member. After three weeks living here, it was time for family vacation. She traveled with us to Blanchard, Washington which is near my family and at the border near northern Idaho.

We had a layover at SeaTac airport long enough that my daughter, Claire and I picked her up at the Alaska Air counter and took her out for a little break near the miserable “dog area” outside the terminal. We found some shade near a strip of shrubs above the area, and even better, an adorable 8-week old boxer puppy that was on its way to Anchorage with a friend of her new mom’s.

Edna was unimpressed with the puppy. I have found, since, that she will bare her teeth at puppies after the first 30 seconds or so of greeting, and even at some adult dogs she meets. That is something I am working on.

My latest idea, to remedy this unfriendliness, is to use one of her favorite noisy toys, like a squeaky or plastic bottle, to distract her from her ugly thoughts and channel her energy positively. That has worked with my older search dog, Levi, who also has feelings about new dogs that aren’t all happiness and butterflies. 🙂

We lived for two weeks in our vacation rental and Edna really was delighted with the resident ranch dogs, German shepherd Ivan and Boston terrier mix, Cruiser. She also really liked Luke, my brother’s young Doberman pinscher, which he just adopted last spring.

Edna and Ivan in the front yard of our vacation rental.
Edna and Ivan in the front yard of our vacation rental.
Edna and Luke chill near the pool while we play in the sunshine.

Most of our training has not been too fancy. My strongest priority has been to finish up potty training! That is my least favorite task with a new dog. Once she hit 16 weeks, it seemed like she began to be capable of more awareness and focus and began to go to the door when she needed to go out.

Nevertheless: there still are accidents when I am not vigilant enough. It’s just the way puppy raising goes. 🙂

She has gotten very good at a few obedience exercises though. She can bark on command, which is critical for our SAR training. She also has a good start on competition-obedience-style heeling, a quick, clean drop on command, walking backwards, staying in a given position for 15 seconds or so at a time, “shake” paw/hand, “come,” sit and stay for dinner and we are starting on the “stand stay.”

I am using clicker training for many tasks, but not all. The worst thing about using a clicker is that I often don’t have it with me when I need it!

We also are practicing loose-leash walking.

One of her more annoying traits is that she submissively pees when meeting new people. I have noticed that in the last week this is lessening, which is great. I’ve just ignored it, feeling pretty sure it would fade as she gained maturity and confidence. Even more annoying is that she loves to exuberantly greet our two cats while peeing and swishing her tail through the puddles. Oh, the joys of a puppy!

Edna at the Kootenai County fair in northern Idaho.
Edna on September 26, with her newest ear style. She has had both down, one up, both up, and now both sideways – “rose ear” style.

Since returning home, Edna has been meeting many new people, puppies, dogs and training a little bit every day. I have introduced her to many different types of toys, so I can decide which type will motivate her the most when we begin search problems.

We take at least a one-hour hike each day, and I am focused on getting to know her so I can be the best handler for her when we are ready to hit the woods for some real work!

Becoming a SAR K9 handler in Ketchikan

The Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad K9 team needs volunteers interested in training search and rescue dogs.

Levi returning to bark, his way of telling me he found our volunteer, who was hiding in the woods
Levi returning to bark, his way of telling me he found our volunteer, who was hiding in the woods

The team started in 1996 with more than 20 members. Through the first five years, the numbers shifted and dropped as people moved, got too busy, or realized they or their dogs weren’t cut out for search work.

In the past several years, however, the team has settled to  a small, but dedicated core who started with the team at the beginning. Now that some are nearing retirement, it’s time to recruit some new people and dogs!

Who are good human candidates?

  • People who love to be in the woods in all weather. Dogs and people must search in the worst possible conditions, and they often are “worst” in Ketchikan.
  • People who can train about three times weekly in the first few months of starting a dog. They often are short little problems, but must be frequent with a beginning dog. Sometimes the most difficult and frustrating part of these training sessions is finding willing volunteers to hide for and play with your dog.
  • People who aren’t afraid of, or are willing to overcome a fear of bears and working in the woods at night.
  • People who think it would be a fun challenge to learn navigating all alone in the wilderness, or who already have that skill.

What kind of dogs will be good candidates?

  • Under two years old. It takes about two years to certify a dog, so you really don’t want to go through all that work and time and have a finished trainee with only a few working years left.
  • Doesn’t only enjoy the retrieve game but *will not stop.* This is critical. Without that, you have no search dog.
  • Best dogs are between 40 and 70 pounds. Large dogs break down quickly, are slow in our steep, thickly-wooded terrain and are tough to fit into small aircraft and boats.

What is the training like?

  • First, you contact me, at 907-617-8382. Alternatively, contact KVRS at 225-9010. To be a dog team member, you also must be a KVRS member. You also can find KVRS on Facebook and at http://www.ketchikanrescue.org.
  • As you train your dog, you will be part of the KVRS search efforts, and on-call as a searcher for callouts. You would get a call or text with a brief message describing where to meet and what type of search it is. Callouts can happen at any time of the day and night, but it’s more rare to get them in the middle of the night.
  • We would arrange a  time for your first dog training practice — usually, we train on weekends. With a beginner dog, you’ll be wedging in practice time on weekdays as well. At your first practice, your dog would stay in your car, hopefully safely in a crate, while you both walk with us as a handler, then also hide for us as a subject. We take the new dogs out last so that after their first “find” they get a walk and playtime, not back-in-the-car time.
Just finishing clearing one side of a long creek on a 2012 search for a lost flyfisherman.
Just finishing clearing one side of a long creek on a 2012 search for a lost flyfisherman.

What do I and my dog have to do to be allowed to go on actual missions?

  • A KVRS K9 dog/handler team must pass three tests: 1) successfully find a person in fewer than six hours in a 160-acre area, showing expert dog handling, navigation and field preparedness; 2) successfully find a person along a 1-mile trail in the dark, in less  than one hour; and 3) pass an obedience test that includes heeling off-leash among people and dogs, a down stay with the handler out of sight, and entering water willingly.
  • A team must be approved for testing by the rest of the team in a vote before the team is allowed to take a test.

We love to meet, and hear from new people, so let us know if you’re interested in just coming to hide for us, walk with us, or to see if you are interested enough to start training a dog, or to try your own dog out.