Update: After 11 wonderful years of companionship we said goodbye to Sousa on 12/20/2011. He will be missed.
Nine years ago this month I brought home a wonderful yellow lab puppy. We had been visiting him once a week for the last month and knew he was going to be a great companion. Sousa (aka Friese’s Finest Fellow) came from the Winterwind Kennel in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We had spent nearly twelve months researching labrador retriever breeders throughout the upper midwest and eventually picked the kennel closest to our northern Wisconsin home because the dogs had a great combination of temperament, working history, and true to the breed standard. I wanted a lab with a blocky head and an otter tail. He was (and still is) a handsome boy.
The day after Sousa came to live with us he started air scent search and rescue training. The first days I would simply run away from him as we walked the snow-covered trails near our home. Ideally I would be running into the wind. This taught him to focus on my location and made the game him chasing me instead of me chasing him.
As the days went by I would run a little further ahead, maybe 20-30 yards, and then duck behind a tree – always running into the wind. He loved to chase me. I always made sure to stay close enough so he would not get distracted during the chase and would always win. Winning was playing tug with a two foot section of floating rope. We played and played and played.
After a few weeks of these games, with lots of other obedience training and socialization experiences ongoing, I had my wife hold him as I ran away. This made Sousa crazy with excitement. She would talk to him excitedly as I ran away. When I ducked behind a tree, wood pile, or side of a building he would explode out of her arms as she let him go. He loved the excitement and the find. We did all of this running into the wind.
Then one day I changed the game. This time I ran perpendicular to the wind, turned into the wind, and cut back towards him. Now my scent was blowing across the trail he just saw me run down. This was the true test. Was he finding me with his eyes or his nose? After I knelt down in the snowing I could hear him squealing and yipping as my wife got him fired up. I could see the trail. He left her arms like he was shot out of a cannon. I could see him running up the trail at full speed. I was close enough to the trail that I knew my scent was pouring across the trail from the strong wind blowing over my back.
When Sousa ran into the scent cone he turned his head so hard and fast into the wind that he fell over. A rolling, barking, ball of snow and yellow fur. Eureka! He barreled through the snow and into my arms more excited than ever to play tug with his favorite piece of yellow rope.
There has never been anything subtle about Sousa. When he gets in the scent cone his head comes up, his tail straightens out, and steps lighter on his toes. His brilliance always made my job easier.
Search and Rescue, like EMS requires lots of time, training, and perseverance. I spent a year learning about SAR, reading about dog training, and talking and spending lots of time with other trainers before I got Sousa. If you have ever thought about getting into K9 SAR this is the general advice I always give:
1. Do the math and look at your budget. SAR gets expensive fast. When I was active I was driving almost 5,000 miles a year just for training activities.
2. Spend at least a year as non-dog handler before getting a dog. Spend this time hiding for other handler’s dogs, watching and learning from other handlers, and reading some of the classic training books. Make sure SAR is for you before you get a dog.
3. Add these SAR training classics to your library. Read them before you get a dog.
Search and Rescue Dogs: Training the K-9 Hero, Second Edition
Scent and the Scenting Dog
4. A SAR dog, like any other pet, becomes a member of your family. Make sure you are ready for a companion that will be with you for the next 8 to 15 years.
5. Select a dog from a well-known and respected breeder. Ask for and talk to references. You will invest thousands of hours into training and thousand of dollars into equipment, travel, and training. Starting off with a “free” dog has never made sense to me. It is not uncommon to spend $1000 or more on a well-bred dog that has capabilities for SAR work.
Finally remember, nose work is easy for dogs and they will do anything they are reinforced (positive and negative) for doing. What is really hard is for you to learn to read your dog and reinforce the things you think you are reinforcing.
This is the 8th post in the 31 Days of Continuing Education series for Everyday EMS Tips.
Sousa is a retired SAR dog. He enjoys family walks, playing fetch in the yard, being dressed up by the kids, and using his nose to find anything.