The importance of travel training for Search & Rescue Dogs - Part 2

On June 1, 2017 Search & Rescue K9 Redden was found struck by a vehicle and killed, ending his search career much too soon. To honor his memory, the K9 Redden Memorial Disaster Dog Training Scholarship was created to support Search & Rescue K9 Teams and their important training. This scholarship will provide opportunities for K9 Teams to participate in essential travel trainings away from their home training site. This blog is the second is a series helping our supporters understand the importance of this type of training.

You know how it is when you wake up in the middle of the night to get a drink of water. You stumble out of bed, down the hall, around the kitchen table, get a glass out of the cabinet, and fill it with water. All while half asleep and without turning on the light switch. You don’t run into corners, kick the leg of the table, or trip and fall. You actually could do this in your sleep. Most nights you do. But what happens when you are traveling and you wake up in an unfamiliar hotel room? You stumble over a suitcase, don’t know where the plastic cups are, and really need to turn on the light but you can’t find the light switch.

That’s the difference for a handler between training at home and training at a new site.

When training at home, all your gear is nicely organized and kept in your own personal vehicle. It’s all muscle memory when you grab your leash and collar and toy and take your dog out to run a training problem. You are solely focused on watching your dog’s body language while they search and are analyzing how you think they are working. Sometimes you may even be chatting with your teammates about where to go eat lunch after training. All easy to do when climbing around in the familiarity of one’s home pile. Despite the jagged edges of concrete slabs, twisted rebar, and crushed vehicles wedged in at every angle, an experienced handler finds themselves easily hopping from slab to ledge to vehicle bumper as they follow their dog while he or she searches for a teammate who is hidden in the rubble simulating a person trapped in a building collapse. 

I too have developed the ability to hop around our pile. But just a month ago however, in preparation for a large-scale training exercise our team was conducting, they reconfigured our rubble pile and plopped a large piece of concrete right in the middle of a slab us handers often use to access the pile. From the ground, it seemed pretty innocuous and I gave it no thought as I sent Redden up to work. He shot up on the pile and before I could even clip the leash around my waist he had found the “victim” and was barking to let me know. I jogged up the slab as I had a thousand times, excited to see how he had so cleverly and quickly worked the problem, and…

“What the…”

“Who put this dang piece of concrete in my way!”

As I tried to get past it, one of my cargo pockets caught on a small piece of rebar. I squeezed and wriggled to get around this newly placed road block. I quietly cursed the person who had messed up my nice little path. After a little contorting and rearranging of gear, I made it through and Redden got rewarded. No harm, no foul. It was all probably a little comical to watch, and in training, it was no big deal.

In a real disaster situation though, a handler must be prepared for navigating rubble like this. Unknown paths to cross, crevices to squeeze through, and snag hazards everywhere. A handler must be comfortable working out of an unfamiliar vehicle, or bus, or 4-wheeler. And while in a disaster they won’t be discussing where to go to lunch, it’s MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) for everyone out in the field, a handler needs to be communicating what they see to their Search Team Manager, keeping a sharp eye out for dangers like downed electrical wires, and still be watching their dog’s body language and analyzing how they are working.

A handler’s ability to do all this well requires practice, and practice can only occur if a handler trains away from their home pile. Just as I described in the first blog (read HERE) how a dog needs to travel to new piles so they learn to search in any situation at any time, a handler needs to travel so they can practice managing their search dog in unfamiliar environments.

Working out of a rental car at a training site that someone have never been to before helps a handler become more effective in the field. This experience helps them in a real disaster to be able to stay focused on their dog which is the key to finding people trapped under the rubble.

There are no “light switches” a handler can turn on in a real disaster to help mitigate the challenges of working amid all the devastation and destruction. They can only travel and train and travel and train some more to be as prepared as possible for when the call comes in.

The K9 Redden Memorial Disaster Dog Training Scholarship supports these handlers in not only providing excellent training for their dogs, but in their pursuit to be the best handlers they can be.

You can support dedicated and hard-working search and rescue dog handlers and their K9s.

Contribute: K9 Redden Scholarship Fund