Turning a Rescue into a Rescuer

I often get asked about how to become involved with Search and Rescue. Usually, someone tells me that their dog is the ultimate search machine and will find them/their toy/food in a matter of seconds, no matter where in the house they are. Or they just got a German Shepherd and are now looking for something to do with their dog. Here is some information about what Search and Rescue training entails. First let’s talk about different areas of SAR. These are some of the more common ones:

  • Urban Search and Rescue (Disaster)
    coloradoThese are the teams who are deployed when disaster hits, such as a tornado, hurricane or earthquake. Just hours after the devastating tornadoes hit Oklahoma City in May 2013, multiple disaster dog teams were on scene, working tirelessly to find survivors, buried underneath rubble piles. Often the dogs work independently from their handlers, sometimes, for safety reasons, the handlers are not even close to the dogs. Usually, these dogs have a bark alert, meaning, they will bark to indicate a live victim. Unlike some of the wilderness SAR dogs, they will  not leave the victim and they will wait for the handler to come to them, thus minimizing the risk of navigating the rubble. With the bark alert, they do not need to be in view of their handlers. On occasions, the handler gives the K9 a command to change direction, using hand signals.
  • Avalanche
    Avalanche dogs are trained to find survivors of avalanches. Many sources quote the Swiss army to be the first ones to have trained Avalanche dogs and/or date the first incident of a dog finding survivors in avalanches in the 1930s. However, Barry, a famous St. Bernard from Switzerland, saved many lives back in 1800. Here is another link to the history of St. Bernards as avalanche dogs: Smithonian. I fondly remember visiting Barry, who’s body is an exhibit in the Natural History Museum in Berne, Switzerland. Avalanche dogs have a long history not only in Switzerland but in many other countries, who have snow year-round. These dogs efficiently cover a wide area almost impossible for people to search. Nowhere else is time as much of essence as after an avalanche. 66% of avalanche victims die after within the first 30 minutes (Avalanche Survival Curve).  Avalanche dogs normally start digging as part of their alert.
  • Wilderness/Tracking
    chinoWilderness Search and Rescue is often sent, when hikers have gone missing. In some cases, the teams are looking for physically and/or mentally disabled people (e.g. Alzheimer patients). They have to cover a large, sometimes mountainous area or deep forests. Tracking dogs, much like disaster dogs, do not have a specific person’s scent – they are to find any live person in distress. Unlike disaster and avalanche dogs, they are usually trained not to stay with the victim, but to come back to the handler. Their alert varies, but a common alert is to take an object from their collar into their mouth and bring it to their handler (Bringsel). Tracking dogs often are out of their handlers view, working independently through brushes and obstacles.
  • Wilderness/Trailing
    Just as Tracking dogs, Trailing dogs search for lost persons. The difference is, Tracking dogs are trained to follow a specific odor, making them the number one choice K9s for Law Enforcement searching for criminals. If the dogs are handled by the Police in search of a felon, they are most likely trained to apprehend and bite – unless they are Bloodhounds. In which case the found person may get slobbered. 😉
  • Search and Recovery
    Search and Recovery is just as important as rescuing people. For families and friends, it is crucial to get closure and to be able to recover the body of the missing person. For Law Enforcement, Search and Recovery can solve a crime. Recovery dogs can be trained to find crime scenes, blood, bones (including historic bones, such as old burial grounds, etc.) and dead bodies. Some of these dogs are efficient water dogs, working on boats to find bodies underwater.

All these dogs have one thing in common: they can efficiently do the job of many people and machines. Some say, one dog is as efficient as 150 people. They are able to cover a large ground in a short time. And their noses are an invaluable tool to save lives.

frida20Now we get to the next subject – the dog. Finding anything in the house does not make a dog a blooming star on the K9 SAR sky. Focus and drive are necessary, but also the ability to work independently, fearlessness, balance to navigate difficult terrain (think piles on piles of rubble and wood or fields of snow), willingness to stay on odor and at the victim, be absolutely trustworthy with strangers (solid temperament) and most importantly, work tirelessly and focused even under stress. Ideally, a dog is not older than 2 years, when SAR training starts. Never had a broken limb or a seizure. They can’t be tiny or they won’t be able reach every inch of a rubble pile. They can’t be too big either or they won’t be as agile.

Dogs like that are very, very rare. In fact, if you know of one who’s looking for a home, please don’t hesitate to contact me!  I picked the title ‘Turning a Rescue into a Rescuer’ because many SAR dogs are shelter dogs, rescued from high kill shelters, often dumped there by people, who were not able to handle such energy. One organization who focuses on training such dogs is the non-profit National Search Dog Foundation. They provide trained K9s to handlers from FEMA teams nationwide since 1995.

Now that we established the type of dog we need for SAR, let’s have a look at the other end of the leash, the handler. SAR training and work is not for the couch potatoes, we all know that. But are you able to climb a ladder with your dog on your shoulders? Work hours after hours in burning heat on a pile of broken concrete slabs or dig through a mountain of wood pallets including rusty nails until you’re on top of it?fridawood Hike for days or run through forests, steep hills or ski through treacherous snow? And if the answer is yes, are you ready to commit almost all your free time to training – you and your dog? Spend money on gas and seminars, books and equipment and not ever expect to be paid back? Are you able to leave work on a moment’s notice to be deployed for an unknown amount of days or weeks?

If you are still interested in joining a SAR group, contact your local Sheriff’s department, a fire department or a SAR organization in your area, such as CARDA. They might invite you to take part in their training for a while before they (and you) commit. Many teams will gladly accept help in form of ‘victims’, who pose for their dogs. There is much to be learned while playing victim! Many groups are also always looking for new training grounds. Some teams may have open trainings and often times will allow the public to watch certifications.

For even more in-depth information, click here for an online class about K9 SAR.

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Why it is a good idea to not leave a dog in the backyard

Now don’t get me wrong. I do think, most dogs love the outside – at least mine do, and I love the idea to be able to provide my dogs with some off-leash time outside, where they can run, sniff and (yes, admittedly) dig a hole to their hearts desire. But I don’t leave them outside without supervision, or at the very least, I’m always close, listening and ready to react. Here are some reasons why it is not a good idea to leave your dog outside without watching them.

Scaling the Fence

fridajump3No, of course my dogs would not scale our 6-feet fences. Or would they? Well, they have. Fortunately, they know who feeds them and who has their favorite dog bed. They did not stray far. In fact, one staid on the couch, while the other one barked at our neighbor’s door until he opened, where upon she ran past him to play with her friend, the neighbor’s dog. We have since fortified our fences, fixed the whole and now even feature double fences. Even the most balanced, exercised dogs can decide to make a go for it, when they discover a hole or a rotten piece of wooden fence.

We had a crazy person opening backyard doors in the neighborhood where we lived before. So even if your fences are bomb proof, you never know what’s going to happen. Add the hated neighbor cat down the street, a couple of fast cars and you have the recipe for a disaster.

Unwelcome visitors

I would have never thought it would be possible, but this last weekend made me realize, that I have not seen it all. I do not let our dogs lose in our backyard without being very alert to their behavior. When I heard them bark, the thought crossed my mind, that it was just our neighbor, cutting his tree next to our fence, like he did the days before. But the barks sounded different, so I went and looked. I could not see anything, but there were abnormal noises from the neighbor’s side. I decided to take the dogs inside, when all of a sudden I saw a big brown dog scale our fence, which is in itself 6 feet high and on top of that there is a big bush, which adds about another 4 feet. Well, this dog decided to work his way through the bush. Fortunately, I was able to get the dogs inside just before that visitor hit our backyard ground or it would have meant a bloodbath, as my female dog is quite territorial. Here’s the real kicker though – our neighbor does not have a dog! So I never expected danger in form of a dog from this side. A neighbor four doors (and backyards) down, dogsat for a friend, put the dog in his backyard and drove away. Fortunately, the dog had tags with phone numbers on his collar and I was not afraid of him, so the situation got resolved quickly. But I do not want to even imagine what would have happened, if I had ignored my dogs or – even worse – I would have left them outside and went away.

Now, again, I have double fences on all sides, except towards that neighbor, who does not have a dog!

Danger lurking in the backyard

Have you ever replanted something? Used a new fertilizer? Found a dead animal hidden in the bushes of your backyard? Maybe improved the looks of your garden with some fresh mulch? Found some exotic herbs or flowers? Even though your dog may have never dug a hole, ate a plant or munched on freshly added fertilizer, it may just happen. And it might have a catastrophic outcome. I know of a dog who died after drinking from water which was close to a tree, which, after an abnormal amount of rain, was dripping a lot of sap into that water. That particular tree sap was poisonous and unfortunately killed the dog.

Animals, killed by poison such as rat poison, may smell like a delicious in-between meal for our furry friends, but proof to be deadly. While you control the pesticide in your garden, your neighbor might have a different idea of getting rid of unwanted guests. Rats and/or other animals poisoned by your neighbor might end up on your lawn, being a risk for your dogs.

Poisonous risks aside – there are other dangers in your backyard. Even your dog playing with fallen branches from your trees might cause a hefty vet bill, if said branch ends up stuck in your dog’s throat. Or, if your dog wears a collar, he or she might suffocate while being hung somewhere in a bush. Yes, that is a very pessimistic way to spoil the idyllic  picture of dogs happily playing in your backyard, but it might just happen. By the way, there is an easy fix on the collar thing: the breakaway collar still gives you the safety of being able to have a collar (and tags!) on your dog while preventing suffocation accidents.

And everything else

coyoteOh, yes, if you can think of it, it can happen. A couple of months ago, I was just able to get the dogs inside before a huge swarm of bees occupied our backyard. While some of you say, that swarming bees won’t sting anyone, I was not about to try that out with our old man, who loves to snap at everything tiny that’s flying. And we don’t live out in the boonies! What if your dog turns out to be allergic to a bee sting? If you are not scared by bees, what about rattle snakes? Scorpions? Yes, I was laughing at that one, too, until I found one on a walk one day. We live in Southern California, in the suburbs, not on some sort of farm land. You know the dangers of your area best.

What can you do?

Some dogs prefer the outside. Some people prefer the dogs to be outside. It’s all legitimate, if precautions are being taken and it is clear, that there are risks, that may not necessarily be the same for a dog, who has access to the indoors. If a dog is to stay outside, I prefer a nice, safe kennel. When you build it yourself, make sure, you have a solid foundation, don’t just buy a kennel from Home Depot and put it up. Make sure, that you have an area that provides shade at all times and enough water. If your dog stays outside in all weather and day and night, make sure, you provide shelter for your dog, be that from the heat or the cold. Be certain, that the drinking water does not freeze. Personally, I prefer a kennel to be situated, where neither a neighbor nor someone from the street has access to. Yes, I’m paranoid like that.

If you don’t have space for a kennel, check your fences regularly. Make sure, that they are high enough for your dog not to be able to jump over them. Add a second fence for safety, if you think it’s necessary. Check on your dogs often. Make sure they have ample water and shade or shelter from the cold. Know their bark! Learn to distinguish their ‘it’s the mailman’ bark from the ‘there’s an intruder’ or ‘I’m hurt!’ bark. Act fast, when you think there’s something wrong. Let your vet know that your dog has been outside unsupervised if something happens and also inform him or her of any new additions to your backyard (plants, fertilizer, pest control). Use a breakaway collar for your dogs with tags. Microchip your dogs!

Finally, obedience train your dogs and exercise them daily. Tired dogs are less likely to go hunting for neighbor’s cat. They are also less likely to be anxious and scale the fence to go look for you. Obedient dogs will come when you call them and you are more likely to be able to bring them to safety, if some coyotes are wandering into your backyard.

Growling Dogs – Now What?

Does your pooch turn into a growling mountain of fur when you try to sneak on your favorite place on the couch, where he already awaits? Is your sweet little chihuahua defending your bed – from you or your family?

Clearly, the black dog has had enough! The other dog understands and moves away.

Growling is a vocal form of communication, just like barking or whining. There are different types of growling – those who ever wrestled with a Rottweiler can tell you, that sometimes, a growl is just fun. Some dogs enjoy growling when they are playing, they may also growl, when you try to take away the piece of steak you just put on the plate for your dinner and that they are now happily chewing on. And they may growl, if they encounter a stranger, someone, they have not met before or plainly just don’t like. Even though, for many of us, these growls may sound exactly alike, they are not. In an experiment, two years ago, scientists recorded the three different growls (food growl, play growl and stranger growl) from 20 dogs and replayed these growls to dogs just about to chow down on a bone. If they were replaying the food growl, an astonishing 11 of 12 dogs withdrew from the bone within 15 seconds. Compared to the stranger growl, only 2 of the 12 dogs left the bone and 4 of the 12 dogs left it when they heard the play growl. They also counted, how many dogs would go back to the bone within 90 seconds. 7 of the dogs from the food growl group did not approach the bone, while only one from the stranger growl resp. play growl did not go back. (‘The bone is mine’: affective and referential aspects of dog growls. Farago et al., 2010)

Understanding the correct meaning of your dog growling is essential as your reaction may either escalate into a dangerous situation or simply means, having more fun, romping around with your dog. While you may feel betrayed by your dog growling at you, there are many signs that lead up to that second to final response – your dog may stare at you, ears back, hunkering down, tail wagging stiffly. Oh, yes – the tail may still be wagging, but do not be fooled. In this form, you are about to trigger an explosion. By punishing the growling, you take away an important step from ‘telling you loudly, it’s about to happen’ to ‘happening’. If you have successfully ignored all the signs the dog has given you with his body language, the growl is the one last thing that will stop you from doing what you are about to do.

Guarding the Furniture

While some ‘experts’ will tell you not to accept your dog growling at you and that you need to win this fight by all means, I’d tell them to try and use their methods on a 120 lbs English Mastiff. Even a chihuahua can execute a fast attack on your fingers and be quite painful. What’s more important though, if you have ever been bitten by your dog, your relationship and trust have just been ruined. From that day on, you will look at your dog differently. And your dog will feel this, too. So instead of instigating a situation which will hugely complicated to resolve, not to speak risking bodily injuries, let’s concentrate on defusing it. By the time your dog shows you all the signs including the growl, it is too late to start applying any sort of dominance training methods or much else. I’m neither saying you have to accept this behavior nor to tolerate it. But for that particular instance, there is not much you can do but get yourself and your dog out of this situation. If your dog is defending his place on the bed, get him down by either going into the kitchen and open the fridge (which for my dogs is always a secret sign to stand at the kitchen entrance), call your dog’s name and have treats ready (good ones, like hot dogs…) or, worst case, use a leash, form a loop, throw it over your dogs head and lead him down – the last method is only applicable, if you know that your dog works well on the leash.Do not get too close to your dog, nor bend over him. Do not be emotional, stay neutral, even positive. Once he is off your bed or couch, work some obedience with him and reward for good behavior. Do not let him go back on the furniture!

Luckily, this dog is not aggressive – I simply took a photo of her barking.

If your dog is protecting that piece of steak, let him have it, calm down and work on food aggression from now on, every day! Take away the opportunity for your dog to steal steaks (or anything else for that matter) and start training towards your dog being comfortable with you being close to his possession and even give it up for you.

Now that the situation has been defused, concentrate on what happened before your dog started to growl. If you dog growled because you approached him when he was laying comfortably on your bed, it does NOT mean, that from now on, you should not go near him, when he’s on your bed. Rather you need to work on him not getting on there in the first place – and work on your general relationship.

In all growling cases, except when playing, I strongly urge to consult with a trainer, who has experience with aggressive dogs. While a growl does not make your dog aggressive, experience with such dogs often help to understand the underlying issue and how to deal with it. Be wary of trainers who tell you to wrestle your dog to the ground and ‘show dominance’ or ‘you need to be the [alpha] [pack leader] [first rank] (pick one), try to sell you a training collar without having worked with your dog first – or have you bring the dog to them to keep for several days to weeks to train him at their training facility. While this may be a good idea for seriously aggressive dogs, a dog who growls at you to protect his food, toy or place needs to work with you under the guidance of a trainer.

If your dog is growling at you, your family and friends or strangers repeatedly, it is a serious issue and needs to be dealt with, even if you think, your 10 lbs dog is sweet, trying to protect you from your friend. Often times, it is quite easy to work with a growling dog, but if you wait until the first bite happens, things become a lot more difficult.

Is Your Dog Barking at the Door or Jumping on People?

Barking at the door and jumping on visitors are two issues, a lot of my clients complain about their dogs. Although the two issues are very different, they may just have the same solution. Before getting into how to resolve this behavior, let’s get some background information first. Some dogs bark because they want to protect their familiar surroundings, some bark, because they are scared or excited and some just plain bark at everything. Many dogs get inadvertently reassured when they are barking at the door, defending their home against a potential intruder. As they bark, whoever is in front of the door, the mailman for example, eventually goes away. ‘Wow!’, the dog thinks, ‘This guy was scared of me barking at him. It works!’. And the next time they bark even louder, because it worked the last time.

Barking Dog

For many dogs, barking at the door is not a conscious behavior and punishing it does not necessarily work. Compare it to screaming out loud when being scared or wincing when in pain – you’d still do it the next time, even if someone yells at you to be quiet. Often times, jumping on visitors, is also not a conscious behavior. Some dogs just get too excited to keep still. You may have heard the old-fashioned dominance tale, which says that dogs, who jump on you when you come home, want to control you. I have even heard some say, that the dog wants to punish you for going away in the first place. Forget about that! That wiggly butt has no world domination thoughts, it just feels excitement and craves attention.

Although both behaviors, the barking and the jumping, come in most cases from a very natural subconscious place, it does not mean, that we have to tolerate them. Here are some hints on how to resolve this issues in a fair and effective way:

  • Create an alternative action and give your dog a familiar command like ‘sit’ or ‘place’. A dog who sits, simply cannot jump and a dog who has to stay at his place, which can be his dog bed, cannot bark at the door. And it gives you the opportunity to reward your dog for a good execution of the command instead of ineffectively punish for bad behavior. Build and train the commands away from distractions until your dog reliably does what you ask, then gradually include distractions and increase the time, during which the dog has to stay in the position. Don’t move ahead too fast and don’t set your dog up to fail – give your dog the opportunity to earn that reward (by the way, cut up hot dogs work magic!). Don’t train for hours, just use minutes a couple of times a day, as long as it is still fun for you and your dog.
  • Socialize your dog! It does not matter how old your dog is – unless you have a special needs dog, expose your dog to the world. Take him to public parks, introduce him to your neighbors and walk next to busy streets. Some stores allow you to take your dog with you, just remember to always clean up after your dog. A well socialized dog is less likely to act fearful or territorial.
  • Keep your dog exercised, physically and mentally. A tired dog doesn’t care about the mailman or visitors that much and is happy to lay on your feet rather than pestering your visiting friends.

Keeping your dog exercised helps keeping the dog balanced