Yesterday I had an impromptu informal afternoon training session at the Palmer Middle School. Earlier Stacey Re and Kathy invited me to walk a trail for Tara, Kathy’s German shepherd. I was invited to come along. I said yes because I knew that this would be good training for me.
Being a handler’s assistant is an important job that requires considerable training. Here’s how it works. The person in charge, or the subject, provides the handler’s assistant with a map. Sometimes the directives are scrawled and near incomprehensible, or like yesterday, the directives take the form of a computer printed map.
Ryder playing tug with Stacie
The assistant’s job when training (as it is when on a search) is to follow behind the dog handler and offer directives, based on what’s indicated on the map. In this way, the assistant might alert the handler to the fact that the dog is off trail. This requires (of course) that the assistant be as adept at reading the dog as the handler.
Stacey had an exacting map. She also had set out a trail, by walking it earlier in the day. And she had a predetermined hiding place that was at the end of the route.
So Stacey went one way, and Kathy, Tara, and I went the other. I was to remain in communication with Stacey via radio. (I’d been given one to use last Saturday.) Our trek started out well – Tara picked up Stacey’s scent and was on it. She was lively, animated and going sniff, sniff, sniff. Then both the dog and I lost it. Meaning, I lost sight of the trail and she lost the scent. I didn’t, as I’d hoped, having time to ponder the map because Kathy and Tara (who is quite strong) were booking along. This is real life. The dog and handler move and you have to move with them. A good lesson for me here, to beforehand – that is I need to make sure that I have a good working sense of the route.
So Kathy, Tara, and I kept going. I sensed that we’d passed the turn, but I was reluctant to mention this to Kathy because I didn’t want to inadvertently be responsible for taking Tara off trail. It was when I was in the vicinity of houses (which weren’t on the map) that I sensed that we were in search and rescue deep doggie do do. I radioed Stacey, who in her usual calm and tactful way verified this.
So back we went, in the direction of the main trail. On this reversal we came to a cut off trail – two small dogs cha wow wows, I think, met us there. Shortly thereafter, a man walking a terrier of some sort came up behind them. And behind them was a beagle. And behind the beagle was a man. And behind the man was yet another beagle. Tara, who is a good, kind, gentle dog, watched the other dogs with bemused interest. They all passed (one was named Piglet) and we continued on.
Tara elected to take this side trail. Kathy and I quickly figured out that it was the wrong trail, and then backtracked to the main trail. In seconds, Tara found Stacey, who was off to the side. We’d apparently passed her on the way out. She speculated that Tara may have missed her because her scent was funneling down the trail. I did not draw attention to the fact that perhaps (I am not yet willing to concede this) that I’m directionally challenged. Hmm, could be a drawback in this line of work.
After, we worked with Ryder. I now understand how to do this. The most important thing (right now) is that she be encouraged to play with the toy the subject has in hand, once she finds him or her. Ryder did wonderfully in the first two go-rounds. On the third, she became more interested in following a rabbit trail. Stacey, who knows about such things, encouraged Kathy (who was the subject) to continue to play tug with her, and play hard. And so this is what she did.
I understand now that training a search and rescue dog is a long, ongoing process. Furthermore, dogs just don’t one day “get it.” Rather, they have to be trained to use their noses. And toy drive is integral to this since it provides them with incentive.
Each time I do a training, whether formal or informal, I learn a bit more. A good reason to keep at it.
Next: 87. 3/28/14: Dog Training: Disaster Relief Training