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February 1, 2014: Search and Rescue Foundation Trailing Class #1: Kindness, Respect, Degree of Focus

Today was the day that I’ve been waiting for for what has seemed like a zillion years – Ryder’s first official day of search and rescue training. I now have a dog that (I think) is well suited to this kind of work. And I have completed my six solo training sessions.

I got my gear and Ryder’s gear ready to go last night. I got up before sunrise, and Pete got up shortly after. We got our morning chores done so that we could get to Teeland Middle School – training was to being at 9:30 a.m. Pete and I were actually early – this was a first. Others rolled in shortly thereafter. All present began conferring about the

day’s events, meaning what handlers and dogs would be doing. Pete and I agreed to lay out scents for the trailing dogs – we walked together to the far side of the school, then he went one way, and I went the other way. Two dogs and their handlers would subsequently follow us.

Donna, Stacie B and Stacey R were waiting for me upon my return, and as I understood it, they were ready to work with Ryder and me. In fact, they already had a plan. We went to the edge of the ball field (which was brushy) and put Ryder’s vest on her. The vest goes on right as the dog begins search work or an actual search – they equate this with the job at hand. In Ryder’s case, she was beginning rudimentary training – in other words, being shown the pieces of the search and game puzzle.

I clipped Ryder’s long line to her vest, and held her vest handle as Donna walked ahead and dropped several yellow boy scout scarfs on the ground behind her, one at a time. These were the scent articles. I was later to learn how to handle scent articles – but in the meantime this worked just fine. Donna walked along, and then she hid in the bushes. Ryder was to follow Donna after I gave her the signal, which in Ryder’s case is “Ryder, ready, search!” (The exclamation point denotes an enthusiastic tone.) Ryder was then to leap forward (momentum is important) and find Donna, who’d then reward her.

As I now know, the reward is extremely important because it is, well, a reward. It helps for the dog to have toy drive because otherwise, the dog doesn’t have any reason to search. Essentially, it’s like being a volunteer for a high powered organization – if you expect to get paid and don’t, your interest in the job might waver. “Tug” or “treats” is payment to a dog.

A paragraph ago I spoke in the past tense – I said “Ryder was to do this and that . . because as simple as the written directives sound, they are extremely exacting. One has to do the search protocol right from the get-go because as simple as it sounds, it’s not. It’s very exacting work. If you send confusing signals to the dog, you can negate all the good that you’ve already done.

Ryder, for example, was at first subdued – quite clearly she didn’t understand what was going on. And I was extremely nervous. We did about a half-dozen mini-training sessions. And each time we did just a little better. One of many things that I learned was that I don’t need to amp up Ryder in the beginning – rather, I instead just need to give explicit directives, and encourage her to do what she’s supposed to do. And as she searches, I’m to remain quiet and let her do her job.

The reward part was at first an iffy preposition for us both. I brought treats – she took them gently from Donna. But all involved agreed that working on her toy drive would be most beneficial in the long run. I’d brought two sheepskin mitt pieces with me. I waved them in front of Ryder and she did nothing at first. Then, on a whim I tossed one of them out onto the grass. Ryder immediately lunged for it. The game was on. For the next twenty minutes Ryder played with us all. And finally, I thought, everyone got to see the dog I know so well, which is the one who works hard at playing hard. Then for the last five minutes, Ryder and I played together, for as I was told, it’s important after a training session or a search for dog and handler to do this together. Makes sense to me.

I learned a great deal today about how to initiate a search and how to train an inexperienced search and rescue dog. I also learned something about the nature of learning, which is the importance of kindness, respect, trust, intensity of focus, and degree of interest.

Donna and the two Stacies were totally invested in working with Ryder and me. It seemed (at that point in time) like this was the most important thing the entire world. This made me feel good. And I’m sure it made Ryder feel good. How could it not?

At the same time, I was reminded that these are the characteristics that I’m looking for in a riding instructor. And until now, I could not articulate what exactly I was looking for. I have trusted my instincts, and not gone with lesser instructors because I have always intuitively known that this would be counterproductive. The down side of this is that Raudi isn’t being given the chance to reach her full potential. We’ll get there. I just have to be patient.

Ryder, though, is going to get the opportunity to reach her full potential.

Later in the day I attended a memorial service that the K-9 SAR group put together for Stacie B. Stacie’s dog Sage recently died – she was, as I understand, a most remarkable dog, having had 14 finds in her career as a search and rescue dog. Most importantly, she was Stacie’s best friend for fifteen years. The event was really sad – I mean, how could it not be sad?

Stacie B. (who is the group leader) is well respected by everyone, including me. It was quite obvious that Sage’s parting was a huge loss for her. But, nevertheless, in the midst of her grief, she continued to instruct those present, by saying many important things. One thing I heard her say was “I hope that you and your dogs get to experience a find while out on a search.” I myself hadn’t considered this a possibility until she said this. I suppose that this is what Ryder and I are working towards. I’m told that one should have the mindset in working with SAR dogs that they’re playing a game. The question is, do the dogs that find people and remains of people then see this as more than a game? I won’t know this until Ryder and I have found a real subject.

Indeed, this little dog and I have a long, long ways to go before we even go on a search. I will then most likely be using a walker and be wearing elastic stockings. And Ryder will be gumming her sheep mitt. In the meantime, I am enjoying the process of learning new things, I think that Ryder is too.

Next: 33. 2/2/14: Horse Care