Someone you love is missing... A family takes a hike through the woods and their 6 year old child goes missing. Your grandfather with dementia wanders off from the assisted living home. The thoughts alone are chilling, but what if these things were to happen? These are the events Luna and I train for but hope never occur. This post is an overview of what we do and how.
Disclaimer: This post is meant to share my thoughts and experiences and lessons I have learned from my training with Luna. Some very talented and wise people have helped me and Luna get to where we are today. I am not a professional dog trainer or behavioralist. Always use your own judgement and experience when taking advice from others.
Types of search dogs
Scent Specific: A scent specific dog is trained to follow an individual person's scent. The dog identifies which individual to follow by sniffing the scent article or footprint that the dog handler presents to the dog. Scent specific dogs typically work on a long lead(leash). They have the ability to scent discriminate to pick out the specific person amongst a group of people.
AirScent: The airscent dog works to find any human scent in the area. They do not need a scent article and they work off leash. Airscent dogs can cover large areas of ground very quickly. There are multiple disciplines for airscent dogs including: wilderness, disaster(live & casualty), cadaver (human remains detections), water (recovery), and avalanche.
What is tracking and trailing?
There are many opinions on the differences of tracking and trailing. I'm not here to debate the semantics or details, rather I'll focus on what Luna does.
Luna will, upon command, sniff an article such as a shirt, hat, glove, sunglasses, or cell phone and begin looking for this person's scent. Once given the command she is in charge of where we go. She is responsible for identifying the direction of travel and identifying turns in the person's trail.
Luna will generally follow the person's footsteps or range within 15-20 yards of the actual trail the person walked. The reason she may be that far off the actual footsteps is that is where she has found the 'scent'. Imagine as you are walking along a trail that thousands of dead skin cells (your scent) are falling off and the wind is blowing them gently like dandelion seeds where they settle 15 yards from where you are actually walking.
To get a mental picture of how scent travels imagine setting off a smoke bomb and watching the wind blow the smoke. You can also take a container of baby powder and squeeze a few puffs out to see how your scent can blown a short distance from where you are.
This is a very simplistic explanation. There are many factors that affect the scent trail including: temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, and the terrain. Scent behaves a lot differently in moist vegetation vs hot dry asphault.
Where can Luna be deployed?
Luna is a resource that can be used in wilderness or urban searches where the missing person is known and a scent article such as a shirt or their vehicle is available.
There are a few basic pieces of equipment needed.
The harness you choose should be comfortable for the dog, durable, visible, and easy to take on and off. I started with one of the cheap harnesses you can buy from a local petstore - this thing was a puzzle to put on. I'm pretty sure Luna thought I was an idiot trying to put this on her because it took so long to put it on. Lillian Hardy (the Training Director for Indiana's Department of Homeland Security Search and Rescue Center) recommended the harness we use now.
This is the Julius-K9 IDC Powerharness. We love it. It is simple, quick, and comfortable.
Extra points for style too - this thing lights up at night with just a little bit of light shined on it.
What a difference the right tools make. I started with a 25 foot cotton lead. It was awful. I was constantly fighting knots and it was uncomfortable to use.
I then switched to a 33 foot synthetic lead from Leerburg. It has the look and feel of leather and the durability is top knotch. However I traded one problem for another. I couldn't focus on my dog while running trails because I was spending all of my time managing the lead. It would inevitably get tangled up around me or a tree.
In 2013 I attended the Indiana Department of Homeland Security Search and Rescue Conference where I got to meet Julie and Bob Kramer. Before I go further I have to give a shout out to Julie and Bob - they are AMAZING people who have poured their heart and souls into search and rescue and teaching people like me the knowledge they have gained through years of working with dogs.
Julie and Bob began the tracking class by going over some basics including line length and handling. They recommended having a few different sizes with no more than 20 feet for the max.
I took their advice and ordered a 10 foot tracking lead. Once I got it I took my 33 foot lead to a horse tack shop and had them cut it into 2 lengths - 19 feet & 14 feet. Now I have backup equipment too in case one fails.
Now that I wasn't constantly fighting and focussing on my lead I could now watch my dog working and learn to read my dog.
My 19, 14, and 10 foot leads.
The scent article
The scent article is any item that contains the scent of the person you are looking for. Ideally it should be uncontaminated - if another person has handled the scent article then it now has their scent on it which makes the dog's job harder.
The basic steps for collecting a scent article:
- Wearing exam gloves so you do not contaminate the scent article, pick up the article and bag it.
- Flipping the bag partially inside out can help you place the article in the ziplock bag without touching the article.
- You now have your scent article! Finish things up by labeling the bag and filling out your evidence tag.
- Scent article ready!
Beyond the basics...
If no scent article is available we can create one! Wearing exam gloves you can swipe sterile gauze on an object the person has touched and place it in a ziplock bag.
An advanced technique is to use a vehicle when no scent article is available. I scent her off the door handle or let her jump into the driver's seat and scent her pick up the scent there
Once again I have to thank Bob and Julie Kramer and Lillian Hardy. They taught me how important the starting ritual is.
No matter what your dog's discipline is, the starting ritual is critical! Dog's are creatures of habit and following your starting routine gets you and the dog focussed.
If you don't have a good start, you're done before you've begun. Luna's ritual is this:
- Walking up to the start of the trail. Lead is attached to her collar.
- When we are near the start of the trail and scent article we stop. I have Luna sit. I then disconnect the lead from her collar and put on her harness.
Putting on the harness:
Buckle the harness:
- With her harness on I attach the lead to the harness ring.
- We then approach the scent article and start of the trail.
- Present the scent article, give the command and away we go!
In order to have a search dog your dog has to have an alert. The alert is the behavior that your dog demonstrates when they have located the missing person.
There are several different types of alerts that dogs use to show their handler they have found a person including a bark alert, recall/refind(dog finds person, goes back to handler, and leads handler back to person), and passive alerts like a down. Luna's alert is a sit & bark. She sits by the person and barks when she finds them.
Luna's alert is one of the most frustrating parts of our training. We've put in countless hours in building her alert... She still only does it 70% of the time.
I can only imagine what goes through her head, but if she could speak this is what I picture her saying: "I found you, but you are not dog jesus."
Basically Luna will go right up to the person, give the barest of acknowledgements and then make a turn away from them. She'll sniff around and if we wait about 20 seconds she'll come up to the person and sit and give the wimpiest bark in the world. That's my Awkward Dog.
Celebrate - it's all about the payment
Do you like getting paid for a job well done? I do. So does your dog! If you don't pay your dog, do you think they'll be excited and motivated the next time you ask them to go to work? What if your employer just stopped paying you, how hard are you going to work?
This is NOT the time to be self-concsious or worry about embarressment. Stop thinking about yourself and think about your amazing dog. Too many people worry about what other people think when they go to reward their dog. Instead of getting excited and letting your energy infect your dog they can barely muster a "Good boy" in a flat monotone voice.
When I ask people to get excited about what their dog just did they generally all have the same excuse: "I just can't get that excited, it's not my personality."
If you can't get excited about the awesome job your dog just did then maybe you shouldn't be trying to train a working dog. That might also explain why your dog is unreliable and doesn't work when you ask it to. Put aside your pride and tough act and start acting like your dog is more important than EVERYTHING and EVERYONE around you at training. Stop worrying about how you look and sound!
I admit it. I scream and squeal like a 13 year old girl. Luna loves it! I don't care what everyone else thinks, my dog thinks I'm Dog Jesus and I'm going to deliver what she wants.
Payday: This is what the dog has been working for. It's where you reinforce the hard work and tell them they did a great job. This is their payday. This is why they work through the steaming heat or the freezing snow.
So what makes a good payday? It depends on the dog!
Some dogs work for balls, frisbees, or tugs. Others work for food. Find the reward your dog loves and build on that.
Luna is highly food driven, and she also loves interaction with me. Therefore I use a combination of a treat and toy reward. For the toy we use a tug.
After our play session, which should last at least 3-5 minutes, we head back to the car and give her a rest. She gets to carry her tug on the way back - this is called trophying.
Thanks for reading!