By Patty Wood, Canine Search Specialist
Ever since I lost my seven-year-old daughter on a beach in Texas, I have had a passion for finding the lost and missing. Tricia was found safe and sound; however, that was the worst ten minutes of my life. While I was frantically searching for her, I kept thinking what a good hound nose could do to find her. That thought and that 10 minutes changed my life. For instance……
Many years later an elderly man, Mr. X, had left his home early in the morning to scout out the perfect squirrel hunting areas in Shelby Forest, located in west Tennessee. He had told his wife he would be home by 9:00 am. With no sign of him that morning, Mrs. X called the park rangers. By 10:00 pm the rangers called Shelby County Sheriff’s Emergency Services for assistance: Joy dog and I are a part of this well-organized and trained first response team with over 100 volunteer members.
Wildrose Wood’s Searching Joy and I answered the call. Once on the scene, I assembled my team of emergency services volunteers. Each team member had a special skill: medical, navigation, and communication. I also requested an armed park ranger (in case of alligator trouble) to accompany us.
Sweat was dripping down my back as we trudged through knee high water to get to the completely dark and quiet woods. The thick green canopy wouldn’t allow cell phone coverage out or moonlight into the woods. Finally standing on dry ground, I cast Joy with her search-for-human command: “Find.” She swirled around and knew exactly why she was there, what to do, and which direction to go.
I worked Joy off lead. She used the air/wind, just like any other hunting dog, to find her target.
Joy’s glowing lightstick, attached to her official search vest with her small bell ringing, showed the way. I had complete confidence in my dog. Suddenly, she took off at a run.
She located her target and started her recall to tell me she had found Mr. X. He had heard her bell, seen her, and started calling for help. Joy knew her job and came all the way back to me to bark and lead me to him. Our medical team member evaluated the victim, gave him water, and a power bar. Communications radioed the base command to advise incident command of the find and the condition of the victim. He was weak, but stable. The navigation team member found a dry exit out of the woods. In forty minutes from the time I had cast Joy to “find,” we had this lost and grateful man in the waiting ambulance. The fastest way to find someone is to use a good certified search dog.
All successful searches are credited to the many people who make them happen. It includes everyone who has hidden in the woods to help me train all the way up the Sheriff himself believing in us.
It takes a year or two to train a search dog. I have to have a variety of people willing to tease my dog with a toy, run away, and let the dog find that person with the toy. The mock victim becomes the trainer and rewards the dog. I continue the chain, training by adding a bark on command, and eventually a recall to the handler with a spontaneous bark at the handler. At this point in training, the handler carries the reward and hands it to the mock victim to reward the dog.
In short, the victim/reward is why the dog searches.
Joy had certifications from National Association of Search and Rescue NASAR in Area Search (live finds), Human Remains Detection on land, buildings, autos, and water. She also accompanied me to schools, camps, and scout meetings to present Hug a Tree, a program that teaches children what to do if they become lost in the woods and how to make themselves found.
Joy and I had fun learning to compete in AKC Rally Obedience. But what Joy liked the best was dancing. Latino music was her favor. We even entered a competition. Being from Memphis, we danced to Elvis’s “Don’t Step On My Blue Suede Shoes.” Having the “place” command really worked for us. Every time I turned away from the GIANT blue shoes decked out with rhinestones, Joy would stand on the shoes. It was a laugh and we both enjoyed it.
Doing something fun with your dog is a big part of training for something serious. A dog can burn out with the pressure of lives at stake.
Every Adventure Dog is equipped with a set of skills that gives them the ability to take on many situations. A few of the learned skills for Joy to be a successful search and rescue dog included:
Having a dog that will remain calm and patient while you tend to other matters, such as assembling your team, studying maps, or tending to the victim’s needs is important to make your mission a success.
Ignoring wild game and other dogs is also necessary. The dog must have focus. This comes with super rewards from the mock victims while training.
Whistle training is of most importance to me. I only use the whistle for the come. Since much of the live searching is done in the dark; and since I want my dog to range away from me, it is a comfort to know I can always call him/her back to me.
Cancer took Joy away from me, and all of Shelby County, last year. She was my second Wildrose dog. I am now training Wildrose Searching Lucy to follow in her paw prints, but she can’t dance. ☺