This particular evening’s K-9 practice was held during an actual disaster relief exercise, which is one with a (seemingly) cast of hundreds. Upon arrival at the Big Lake Fire Station, I noticed that there were just a handful of people milling about. As is always the case, the big red shiny fire truck was in full view. In this case, there was a huge storage container filled with fire debris to my left, and to the left of it was a three story beige metal building made from old shipping containers. This, we were told by Dan Giorno, was the fire practice building. It was, he further explained, built for the express purpose of training fire fighters.
Pete and I arrived an hour before practice was to be begin. We were to wear hard hats in the demo building area, so this is what I did. I decided to work with Ryder on going up and down the grated staircases. She has never liked grating, and this time was no exception. I used a clicker and treats in an attempt to get her up the stairs on her own. She went up part way on her own, but not willingly. I then did as Stacie Burkhardt suggested, and carried her up the three flights, one of which included a circular metal staircase. The upper floors were comprised of thick metal sheeting. Ryder wasn’t happy
about being on this surface either, and when provided with the opportunity, she flew down the stairs. How, I wondered, does one convey to a dog that going down is more dangerous than going up?
By this point in time, firefighters, medics, EMTs, and search and rescue people were arriving en-mass, along with additional emergency support vehicles. The 75 – or so attendees donned helmets, search and rescue vests, and in some cases, then donned heavy fire fighting outer gear. Dan then did the briefing, introducing all the important people to the rest of us. As I understood it, there were to be seven differing scenarios going on, three involving the use of the dogs. Everyone then went to work. Some dragged out ladders, and others dragged out EMT equipment.
Ryder and I worked with the trailing group, which actually consisted of three subjects, handlers, and trailing dogs. Kathy was in charge of organizing the dog unit. I was to work Ryder first; an eighteen-year old named Dignity was my subject, and dog handler Vicki Gross was our support person. After, there was considerable hurry up and wait.
Ryder and I did two runs. We all walked to a rise. Dignity then dropped downhill, and disappeared behind a snow berm. Ryder and I saw her disappear, but did not know where she went. I showed Ryder the scent item – some socks in a Ziploc bag – then gave her the search command. She took off at a good clip, me behind, thrashing through brush – and soon we found Dignity. I tapped Dignity on the shoulder, and then encouraged her to play tug with Ryder. As I explained, this had to happen fast. In the few minutes it took me to say this, Ryder was already interested in something else. I quickly got her attention by waving the tug toy in front of her nose, and she then played with it.
The second run was our shining moment. Ryder was to find Dignity, who went downhill, and disappeared out of sight. Ryder and I took off after her, after just a few minute’s wait. Ryder scrambled downhill, and then at the base, she sniffed the ground, looked straight ahead, and then veered to the right. I followed her up the hillside, all the while attempting to keep my momentum, this because it was slick. At about three –quarters of the way from the top, I saw that she was heading in the direction of Jim and Yukon, who were working at the top of the hill. I got Ryder back on trail, and we then clambered back downhill.
At the base, she turned right and continued on. We found Dignity in less than a minute’s time. Vikki Gorss said two times was enough – and so we called it quits.
I was pleased because in both instances Ryder used her nose when attempting to find the subject. In other words, she was actively problem solving. No, this was not a perfect run. The trail conditions and terrain were actually comparable to the practice last Thursday, the one behind Wasilla High School. (This was the one where she had a harder time of it.) This time she succeeded in an instance in which she had a harder time of it.
My thinking, that our inadvertently challenging Ryder, was a good thing, which was verified later on, as I was later reading Ready: Training the Search and Rescue Dog, by Susan Bulanda. She writes:
One of the most difficult concepts for dog handlers is to recognize that dogs learn from their mistakes. If a handler tries to micromanage their dog, he or she stifles the dog’s creativity and prevents the dog from analyzing the information at hand. For example, letting a dog overshoot a scent and find it again will give the dog the experience he needs in order to solve problems in varying weather conditions. If the dog handler attempts to guide the dog through every step of a problem, the dog will begin to depend upon guidance from the handler and lose the ability and/or desire to think on his or her own. Micromanaging a dog teaches the dog that he or she is not to make a decision on his or her own.
Bingo. Ryder was presented with an instance in which she had to pick up a trail after losing it. Here she learned that this was something that she could easily do. A short, but productive session. Vicki said to quit while we were ahead, which is exactly what we did.
We returned to the fire station where the dog teams and others were finishing up scenarios. We then had a debriefing session before departing.
It was good for Ryder to be exposed to the controlled chaos that goes hand-in-hand with such events. What she is learning is to equate being in such situations with having to work. I’d say that it is becoming evident to me that our forte is trail and not disaster/relief training. She and I are both happiest and most confident when we are more rural settings. Perhaps a good thing to know early on.
Next: 119. 4/30/14: Horse Training: What I do, and don’t do well