As the Pacific Northwest’s summer heats up and people begin their annual exodus outside, we’re bound to see stories of lost and missing hikers in the Gorge, around Mt. Hood, in the Jefferson Park Wilderness, and many others. Search and rescue volunteers are called upon regularly to provide the manpower for searches that often span hundreds of acres. Although many volunteers have important support roles to perform, K9 units are the ones scouring the forest floors for scents and clues leading to the missing persons.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon, I was lucky enough to sit in on a K9 training session put on by Mountain Wave Search and Rescue (SAR). Brian McLaughlin, Barbara Linder, and Terri Hines, all K9 handlers, gave me a behind-the-scenes look into what it takes to become a handler and participate in these missions as K9 SAR volunteers.
Kevin Machtelinckx (KM): What is your dog’s name, age, breed, and specialty?
Brian McLaughlin (BM): Schooch, 3 year-old Australian Shepherd, air scent.
Barbara Linder (BL): Opal, 3.5 year-old Labrador retriever, air scent.
Terri Hines (TH): Rook, 3 year-old Belgian Shepherd, human remains detection.
KM: What does your dog’s specialty mean?
BM: Scent is wafting off each of us all the time. When outside, that scent is carried by the breeze. So there is an ever-widening path of scent wafting downwind from everybody outside (generally called a scent cone). My job is to navigate the area I’m given to search in such a way that we’ll intersect the scent cone of anybody that might be out there. My dog’s job is to react to that scent cone in a trained chain of behavior that includes following the scent to the subject, returning to me, alerting me that he’s found a subject, then leading me back to the subject he’s found.
TH: A Human Remains Detection (HRD) dog is trained to do just that, find human remains in any phase of decomposition and alert the handler of its location. The dogs are trained to recognize the smell of human remains versus animal remains or any other distracting odor that may be a normal attraction to a dog. They are trained and able to detect human remains on land, underwater, or buried for concealment.
KM: Walk me through what a dog and trainer have to go through to become certified.
BM: Air scent training begins with what we call a runaway. The first runaways are simply having a training partner wave the dog’s favorite toy in front of him, making a bunch of noise and generally acting a little crazy and animated, and then turn and run away 10-20 yards, turn back around, and call the dog. The dog runs to the subject and is grandly rewarded with praise and play and maybe a treat. Doing this a few times makes running to that subject the most fun and exciting game the dog could ever hope to play. Then when the dog reaches the subject, you start calling the dog back to you to get the reward and praise. Before long, the dog understands that this new variation of the game is great too. Then you ask the dog to alert you somehow (Schooch pulls a special tug-toy off my belt to indicate he found someone) to get the reward and praise. Soon, the dog learns that he needs to do the alert to get his reward. Finally, after alerting, the subject calls the dog back to him, the handler follows him, and it’s a grand party back at the subject. You do this over and over again, and the dog learns to do that sequence of trained responses when playing the runaway game. Then, the subject starts ducking behind a tree when he runs away, so he’s out of sight when the dog is released. As time progresses, the subject ducks further and further aside and hides further and deeper from the last point he was seen. Then the handler turns the dog away as the subject runs, so he can’t see where the subject went at all. I always mark the beginning of the game by putting the search harness on the dog so when it comes out, Schooch knows it’s play time. Soon, there doesn’t have to be a runaway at all - the game has progressed to where the harness goes on, and the dog is ready and anxious to start playing the search game. All the training culminates in a certification test which is a demonstration of your ability to navigate a 120-acre piece of wilderness as outlined on a map with your dog to find a hidden subject within four hours. Dog and handler will have demonstrated their ability to do that day or night, rain or shine, prior to the certification test being scheduled.
KM: What kind of training do the handlers themselves have to have in order to go out on searches?
BM: In our group, handlers need to be OSSA Type II certified. That means they need to demonstrate the ability to build fire and shelter with what they carry, navigate unfamiliar wilderness areas with map/compass and/or with a GPS, basic first aid and CPR skills, understand the Incident Command System, basic radio communications, search types and methods. You need to carry gear and supplies to enable you to stay in the field for 24 hours with your K9 and potentially a subject. Our group trains anyone that is planning to be in the field on these skills. All K9 handlers are required to have this Type II certification to participate in a search with their dog.
KM: What would you say has been the most difficult part of training your dog?
BM: What slowed our training down most was my lack of experience in training this kind of thing! Learning how to keep track of where I was and making sure to navigate my dog into potential areas of scent while paying attention to the dog and seeing/understanding his behavior took time. You learn to understand what small, seemingly insignificant pauses, glances, and gestures mean. You learn to see when your dog is trying to work out what he’s smelling and what direction that faint scent is coming from, and he learns that you are encouraging him to do that. As for problems that he had - I guess I’d say that it would be related to chasing squirrels and such (he’s tangled with skunks too!). To deal with that, we would spend lazy afternoons on our back deck, sitting on the loveseat, just watching the world go by until… a squirrel would skitter by on top of the fence. Schooch would leap from the deck and go tearing after that squirrel. I would leap from the deck and go tearing after Schooch! I was very gruff with him —in his face, “NO ... NO ...,” in a low loud voice. The first time I did that, it kind of scared him, because I generally don’t talk to him like that. The second time (a day or two later), I did it the same way, but he didn’t seem scared—just put out. The third time a squirrel went by Schooch tensed and prepared to jump off the deck, but he paused and looked back at me. I gave him a gentle “no, no.” He turned back toward the squirrel, paused, and lay down. Since then, a gentle “no, no,” is generally enough to dissuade him from squirrels, other dogs, etc. He gets a good round of praise every time my “no, no” results in him standing down.
KM: How often do you and your dog participate in training exercises?
BM: Our group holds training sessions six times a month. We generally make it to all of them. I also do obedience training more or less constantly—every interaction I have with my dog is within the bounds of my obedience expectations. I also take him places to stretch his experience and his trust in me. For instance, taking him on elevator rides, through a crowded MAX platform, through the hustle and bustle of the crowd waiting to get into the zoo on a Saturday morning, riding on a MAX train, etc. Training like that has resulted in a dog that, when he’s nervous/anxious, is right close at my side. That’s right where I want him if he’s a little fearful or nervous, and I praise him big time for that.
KM: In your opinion, what is the most dangerous aspect of search and rescue for you and your dog?
BL: I don't like to search in urban areas due to the risk of getting hit by a car because Opal can range out of sight. I have to be careful with her in the Gorge as she could easily cliff out with her focus on searching and not paying attention to the terrain.
KM: What has been your most memorable rescue, call out, or training event since you started doing search and rescue with K9’s?
BM: My best example was when we were assigned to go up a trail in the Columbia River Gorge and hook up with another trail to follow back along a creek to base. The “trail” turned out to be over rock and scree fields with pitches that required ropes to get through and sections so narrow that you could look down to your left and your right to see cliffs and/or very steep slopes where one wrong step would be very costly. When we were 6 hours in, we had a team member who was struggling a bit with the terrain. We hit snow and decided not to continue. You really need to know your abilities, and it’s always OK to say no. After getting home after that one, I looked up that trail and discovered it is listed as one of the most extreme trails in Oregon. If I’d known that in advance, I probably would have declined, but I’m pleased that the whole team made it back safely.
KM: What is one thing that you think people don’t realize when they think of search and rescue dogs?
BL: You don't "buy" a SAR dog ... you are a team and you bond from day one. It would be very difficult for another handler to search with my dog as one of the important aspects on a search is the ability to "read your dog." During a search, you watch closely for behavior changes and work off those behaviors.
TH: When people see the dogs working I don’t think they realize the amount of training that we put into the dogs to get them ready for deployment. It’s typically many days and hours per week and it’s ongoing until the dog retires. While it is a job for the dog, it’s also like a big game to them, even to go out and find human remains.
KM: Any final thoughts on the bond you’ve developed and shared with your dog?
BM: It’s amazing. Working with your dog—and relying on him—on such a regular basis on a task that has you out in the woods in strange places with your dog off leash, looking for people, and seeing him perform his task in the dark, in the rain, and in the snow, simply because he wants to please you and play the game—it’s amazing. There’s a two-way trust that develops. He trusts that you won’t put him into a situation that will hurt him, and you trust him that he will do his job no matter what. It’s all done for the play time at the end—there’s reward in that for me too.
BL: Opal is a very high drive lab and while we have had challenges along the way due to that drive, it has only bonded us together as a team even more. I love her commitment to work and I’m proud of her abilities and trust her to do her job when needed.
TH: I adopted Rook when he was just under 2 years old so I didn’t get to bond with him as a puppy. He had already been in at least two other households so I really had no idea what kind of life he had prior to me bringing him home. I think training and learning this skill together allowed us to bond faster than if we were not involved in SAR. There’s a lot of trust that is required between a K9 and handler, and without that special bond that you form I don’t believe that you can be a successful team.