America’s Rescue Dogs Got Talent!

Search and Rescue dog Frida at a training after finding a live ‘victim’

Watching one of the recent ‘America’s Got Talent’ and seeing the group of rescue dogs performing amazing tricks, reminded me of all the working rescue dogs out there. While we appreciate dogs, who were bred to relentlessly work on finding those roadside explosive devices or flushing out terrorists and criminals, there are more dogs coming out of a rescue situation, proving that they are just as excellent in doing their job. The National Search Dog Foundationis a non-profit organization, founded in 1996 by Wilma Melville, after she worked with her dog at the terrorist-bombed Federal Building in Oklahoma City and realized, that there are not enough search and rescue dog teams in the Nation. The organization has volunteers and staff members combing through shelters throughout the country to find canines who fulfill the extraordinary skills it takes for them to become a search dog. They train the dogs, once rescued and now to become rescuers, and their handlers. Some of their dog teams have been at the 9/11 grounds, searched areas after Hurricane Katrina, went to Haiti and Japan, working hour after hour to find any living survivors. However dire the situation, when the search dogs appear, everything just seems a little bit better and a glimpse of hope returns.

Searching for bed bugs

But the Search Dog Foundation is not the only organization who employs former shelter dogs. Many groups turn to shelters in order to find those unadoptable high drive and toy crazy dogs. Often these dogs have been turned in by their owners, because they were not able to handle them, in some cases, they may have turned aggressive over their toys. Sometimes, the dogs would jump the fence over and over again, because they were just too bored. Dogs, who need a job, cannot be tired out by a brisk walk in the morning. They need a lot of mental exercise, high drive play, strenuous physical exercise and obedience training – not necessarily something, a typical pet dog owner knows how to do.

Finding a dog at the shelter and train it for work is as rewarding as winning the lottery for me, but it is also very hard to turn away a dog, who almost has the potential and may be too much for a pet, but is not quite there. For most sad stories, there are successes though. My own personal dog, Frida, who got rescued from a shelter in Los Angeles, is a Search and Rescue dog and I have been fortunate to since find and train dogs for many other jobs, such as cellphone, explosive, narcotics and contraband detection, even e.coli and bed bug detection. With the right dog, any K9 job can be done – there are many talents and hidden treasures in our shelters!

If you are toying with the idea of rescuing a dog, here is a starter on how to find the right companion for you. And how to select a dog from a breeder vs. a rescue. Most shelters and rescue organizations are looking for volunteers to walk or foster their dogs. This may be a good idea to get started and find out more about the responsibility of what it means to own a dog!

Contraband detection K9 during a break

How to Train Your Dog – a Practical Short Guide

No, this is not going to turn your dog into an elite university graduate over night, but hopefully, it will help you and give you some tools to get started as your own dog’s trainer. Let’s break it down in 5 easy to follow parts:

Rewards can come in different shapes or form. This dog likes toys much better than food.

  • Motivation
  • Training Time
  • Training Plan
  • Corrections
  • Expectations

Motivation
This is both for you and your dog! You don’t like to work for free, do you? Well, neither does your dog. Find out, what makes your dog tick the most. Yes, we all think, our dogs will do anything for a pat on the shoulders, but I haven’t seen a dog turn down a tasty treat yet. For training, we want small, soft treats, like hot dog or string cheese pieces, that can be chewed fast, so the dog is ready to continue. Size matters! A German Shepherd will probably need a different size treat than a Chihuahua. Training with food reward is a good way to keep training motivational. It does not mean, that you need to keep treats in your pocket for the next 15 years. Yes, your dog should obey your commands, but he needs to learn them first! I love REI’s treat pouches– it makes carrying and dispensing treats so much easier. If your dog turns his nose on what you offer him, you’ll have to try different treats until you find that one that makes him salivate at the pure thought of it. I’ve seen people train with Cheetos or french fries!  You, on the other hand, need to be motivated as well. Don’t get frustrated, if things don’t work out right away. Be patient and have fun with it!

Training Time
Don’t drag the training out – stop while both of you still have fun! Even if it is just 5 minutes, it is valuable. The best thing is to have a couple of short and sweet trainings throughout the day. Don’t start when you just come home from work and you’re still stressed. You should train when your mindset is relaxed and stress free.

Training Plan
Always have a plan before you start your training. Know exactly what you want your dog to do, so you can teach him precisely that. If you have a big trick in mind, start slow and break it into pieces – for example, if you want to teach your dog to go hide in a box, don’t start with the whole thing. Start with rewarding him when he goes close to the box, then put his feet in the box, reward him sitting down and eventually work on him laying in the box. Do every step multiple times until he does it reliably, before you move to the next. Read up on different training methods and styles before you start. And always, always be consistent and patient.

Heeling

Corrections
Once your dog knows what you ask of him, we can talk about corrections. Know your dog. Some dogs are more sensitive than others. If you do apply corrections, they need to be fair and the timing has to be great. Use enough to get your dog’s attention but as little as necessary. Inform yourself about different correction methods and be cautious about those which promise instant results. In the end, it is better to use one good correction than 50 weak ones. A correction can be a verbal (e.g. ‘No!’) or a physical (e.g. quick tug on the leash). It can also be withholding the reward. When you train your dog for a behavior that he does not know yet, don’t correct wrong behavior. Instead make the right behavior more interesting. Give your dog a chance to offer the correct behavior. If you do use corrections, make sure that it is balanced with reward – and always, always end on a good note.

Expectations
Have realistic expectations. If you haven’t worked with your dog in two years, don’t presume that he will start heeling after a short training session. Good things take time and it is important to build a solid foundation. Start at a place where your dog is comfortable, like your home. Don’t take your dog to your friend’s house to show of tricks you’ve never done outside of your home. Once your dog applies your commands correctly, you can start adding distractions by training in your backyard, then in your neighborhood and eventually in a public park. It is not fair to expect your dog to do a roll over in a dog park, if you have not extensively trained it with many distractions around before. Set up training goals and don’t do too much at a time.

Keeping the fun working with your dog is the most important thing!