Real SAR training begins

So, Edna turns 7 months old on New Year’s Eve. She is a spritely little thing at only 30 pounds.

I had made that my target age to ramp up Edna’s search training. I almost regretted that, because I spent quite a bit of her early months worrying about how she would perform when we finally started our real search training.

At first, she did seem slightly tentative while playing with the people who helped me with her first runaways. In a runaway, a person takes the her toy and teases her with it while I hold her back and encourage her. They are not scenting problems. They are set up to simply teach a dog that a person is out in the woods and has their toy, and running to them is the most exciting thing of all!

In the very first runaways, the dog is let go to run after the volunteer as soon as he/she tucks behind a tree or other object. As soon as the dog arrives at the “hidden” person, the volunteer plays with the dog — it is a big party. The best search dogs are highly focused on the toy, so are easy to motivate.

At first, as is usual, I played “lost person” and Edna did great – lots of enthusiasm and focus. When I began to set up problems with strangers, however, she was a bit less confident. She played with less intensity, and seemed just a bit less eager. I have to admit, I was a bit worried. If Edna didn’t have what it took to be a great SAR dog, I’d be faced with unthinkable choices: re-home her or give up search and rescue for the years it would take Levi to pass away so we’d have room in our home for another large-ish, very active dog. It is a tough and scary reality for any SAR handler.

As we have practiced more, however, I saw that my first suspicion — that she simply needed more experience playing with new people in this strange new game  — seems correct. Her runaways with family members or teammates are great. As a young puppy, she was very submissive with new people, and it took her months to grow out of her habit of greeting people with submissive urination. She is a sensitive and respectful girl.

So, I am working to build confidence in her that will make her able to careen into any person at all and to grab that toy and tug the heck out of it.

In January, I plan to add the second half of the runaway, which is to call her back to me, ask for her “bark” (which she learned months ago) then teach her that I have no idea where that person is, so she needs to lead me in. (Another confidence builder, for sure!)

By February, I plan for her to be ready for actual searching — where she does not know where the person is, and she uses her nose to find airborne scent.

And, of course, we have been practicing obedience. I want a high level of focused attention in our heeling performance, so looked to for training guidance. I purchased an online course that has been great so far. I train Edna for about 15 minutes per evening, using that program. We started with using treats to create a bridge reward to create a marker word (“good”) to use when she is sustaining a behavior (such as maintaining eye contact, or holding a long stay) and also created a marker word (yes” or the sound from a clicker) to mark the moment of a desired behavior and also the release of a behavior. (Such as the end of a longer heeling pattern or a down stay.)

Now she has some great intensity when I take her out for training, and I get her started with the word “ready!” I am working on enhancing her awareness of how to maneuver her feet. Dogs are generally quite unaware of the position of their rear feet, specifically. To train a dog for precision heeling one sees in competitions such as AKC or Schutzhund trials, you must have a dog that has not only complete mental focus on the handler, but awareness of where its feet are. It almost is like you are training a dance partner. Edna, midway through this program, can now walk backward on cue, and is learning to step up on elevated objects with her rear feet. It has been challenging, as she is very aware and sensitive, and wanted to dodge any object, such as a plank or low bench, or even a snow sled, that I place for her to practice on.

Another obedience challenge I am tackling is her come when called under distraction. Like most dogs, as she gains confidence as an adolescent, she is less likely to obey my call to come when she sees people and their dogs approach. I am now putting the electronic collar on her (uncharged) when we go for walks so she associates it with fun outings. I will use it as an invisible leash to correct her when she refuses to come when called in exciting situations.

We continue to do fun training tasks as well, such as “shake,” and “crawl” (a low army crawl,) down stay, sit stay, “bark,” and other necessary and less “fun” commands as well such as “leave it” (i.e. put that deer leg down NOW) “let’s go,” (time to get in the car!) and other every-day things.

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
  • 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.