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)

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 Leerburg.com 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.