Archive for the Rescue Training Category

How to Hover in a Helicopter With Your Search Hound

Posted in howto, Rescue Training, Search and Rescue with tags , on June 28, 2012 by rattlerjen


Helicopters can be a wonderful resource as eyes in the sky, communication, and as transport.  They can get you to a search quickly and even fly you to places inaccessible to other vehicles.  Introduce your Search and Rescue dog to flying safely in a helicopter.

Parts of a helicopter

Dog Safety Gear

doggles muzzle muttmuffs

Helicopters are loud, blow debris, and filled with sensitive equipment.  There are four items your dog will need for a safe flight.

Eye Protection

Eye protection will save your dog’s eyes from the dust and debris kicked up by the rotors while loading and unloading. I have found Doggles work quite well and come in a variety of colors and styles.  Grom really likes his and barely knows they are on. You can buy them from the manufacturer here or at many area pet stores.

Ear Protection

Dogs have more sensitive hearing than we humans do.  I imagine the noises from the helicopter engine may be quite bothersome. I chose to solve the problem with using ear protection for horses. It is made from a sort of memory foam that expands and comfortably fills the ear canal providing a nice fit.  Grom is no horse, so I simply cut them in half and then down to size. Once I put them in his ears, he completely forgot about them.

If your dog hates having his ears messed with, try MuttMuffs. Daisy the GSD mystery mix is sporting a pair in the picture above.  She absolutely hates having her ears touched, but gladly trotted around with these professional looking “ears.”


Even the sweetest dog will use her mouth when terrified. An unexpected bump of turbulence can cause your dog to react and turn the inside of the cockpit into chaos.  Protect everyone with a properly fitted muzzle on your pup. Make sure your dog can comfortably drink water and pant while wearing his muzzle.

We decided to have an online company custom make a ventilation wire muzzle to fit our Malinois after several failed muzzle fittings at our local stores.  He looks like Hannibal Lecter, but fits beautifully allowing Grom to fully open his mouth and has great airflow.  Here is where we got it:


The most important piece of equipment is your dog harness.  It must be very sturdy and able to handle your dog’s weight and stay ON no matter how much your dog wiggles, trashes, or pulls to get out of it.  His harness is what will keep him in his seat during the ride, a possible handle for loading and unloading your dog from the aircraft, and something to safely grab and secure your dog. We thought our dog’s very thick search harness would do the trick, but he managed to wiggle out of it to get away from the wash of the helicopter.  It made my heart stop I tell you.  His agitation/tracking harness did a much better job at keeping him secure.

I would suggest an agitation, tracking, or rappelling harness to do the job.  Look for harnesses that have a handle or somewhere to grab, fit him properly for it, and make darn sure he cannot get out of it no matter what.  The harness is where you will attach your leash and where you will run the seatbelt through to keep him secure to the seat.

Practice at home

The sight and sound of a running helicopter may not be something easily simulated at home, but there are some things you can do to get ready.

First, practice loading and unloading out of the back seat of a car.  In the picture above, I am teaching Grom to put his paws up in the car and wait. This position gets him out of the wind and sound created by the rotors calming him down.  If I step up behind him, he is in the perfect place to allow me to load up my gear and prepare to load while blocking movement away from the helicopter.  I can grab his collar or harness with one hand easily if he gets spooked.

Practice running a seatbelt through his harness in the back seat of the car.  Seat belts in choppers tend to be similar to those found in airplanes and cars. See if you can quickly put your headset on, latch him in, nestle your gear in place, and latch yourself in safely.

Take your dog to a safe place next to busy train tracks.  NEVER let him off leash here.  The loud sound of the train and the wind does a good job simulating some of the effects your dog will feel when approaching a running helicopter.  Give your dog tons of pea sized treats (like cut up hot dogs) one at a time every time a train goes by.

Meet the Crew

The pilot is captain of his ship.  Do absolutely everything he tells you.

The flight officer is responsible for your safety.  If you are lucky to have one, they will help you load and unload yourself, your dog, and your cargo. Due to temperature, weather, altitude, and weight restrictions, you might not be accompanied by anyone other than the pilot.

Cold Run

Before you try to load yourself and your dog into a “hot” running helicopter, go through a cold run with the engine off first.  A cold run is your chance to get the rules, safety, learn how to communicate, ask questions, and familiarize yourself with the craft. Pay special attention to the order in which you will need to do things when approaching and loading.  Observe how doors lock, unlock, open, and latch. Be sure to note where everything is located; often the headset is put away, doors are locked, and seat belts are latched at all times. You should also experiment with where your gear goes.  Ask yourself several questions, such as:

Can you reach and operate things you need to while holding your dog with your other hand? Where are you allowed to step? What things should you avoid?

Notes Before you Approach

TV shows have given us some pretty silly ideas about what to do around helicopters.  Here are a few things of note:

The pilot sits on the right seat of the cockpit. (Yeah, it’s backwards.)


Rotors are the spinny bits that give the helicopter lift and go. Despite what you saw on TV, you do not typically need to duck down low to avoid the blades.  Beware, a very strong gust of wind or landing on a slanted hill may cause the rotors to dip down lower than normal so don’t go jumping up and down or waving at your friends until you are well clear.

Rotors do create quite a gust of wind when they are spinning.  Watch for debris  blown around and protect your eyes.

Speaking of debris, make sure to secure all lose items on your body.  Take off and pocket, pack, or secure your hat, sunglasses, jewelry, cellphone, clothing and other items.  Loose items can be sucked up into the rotors and effectively kill your helicopter.


First, stay back at least 100 feet keeping in view of the cockpit.  Next, give a thumbs up signal to indicate to the pilot that you are ready.  Wait for him to return the signal before approaching the aircraft. Then, approach the aircraft from the front staying within the pilots view and look him in the eye.  Never approach the aircraft from the tail end or the tail rotor will be your end.  Keep your dog very close to you using a leash or even hold on to his harness while you walk. Be aware that your dog may decide to bolt at anytime especially when you get close to the aircraft.


Loading and unloading are the times you are most likely to have problems.  With so much going on you don’t want to accidentally drop  your dog’s leash while opening a door and have a scared pup loose on the tarmac.  Until your dog is belted in his seat, have your hand on your dogs leash or harness at all times.

The first thing you should do after opening the passenger door, is put your headset on and put the mic all the way up to your mouth. (Eat the Mic) This will allow the pilot and you to communicate. Secure your dog in the seat with a seat belt through the harness and an additional tie down on a secure point nearby to keep him in his seat.

Next, secure your gear in its place and belt yourself into your seat.  Finally, make sure the door is properly closed, latched, and locked.  Notify the pilot when you are ready.

The ride

The ride is the wonderful part of the journey where you get to relax and let the pilot do all the hard work.  Keep your pup’s muzzle on for everyone’s safety while in the cabin.  Make sure he is comfortable and relaxed.

Remember, keep your hands to yourself, touch nothing in the helicopter.


To unload, if you have a flight officer wait until she comes to your door before attempting to exit.  If you have no flight officer, wait until the pilot says it is ok to leave.  After opening the door, be sure to take off your headset first.  Get all of your gear out of the cabin and situated so you may grab it with one hand after closing the door.

Re-latch your seatbelt. Then, untie your dog and get him out of his seatbelt. Be sure to re-latch his seatbelt. You may lift or lead your dog out of the helicopter while always keeping a secure hold on his harness or leash.  This is a fine time for him to take off. Your dog should be the last thing out of the chopper. All you have left now is to close, latch, lock the door, grab your gear and go.  Just make sure to wave goodbye only after clearing the rotors.

Have you ever ridden in a helicopter? What are your tips?

Ash in the wind

Posted in Rescue Training, Search and Rescue with tags , on March 14, 2012 by rattlerjen

An Effective way to test the wind

Instead of a long post this week, I thought I would share with you a little trick we found while grilling on a gorgeous spring afternoon. In order to use our fine smoker, we needed to clear out the old ash. I bet you can guess what we found.  A fine powder to test the wind with!

We have a fairly steep south facing wooded hill in our backyard.  This video was taken in the late afternoon.  Temperature was in the mid 60’s with wind less than 5mph.  See what happens when ash is fling parallel to the ground from about 4 feet in the air

See what happens when the ash is flung closer to the ground only a few minutes later.  You can see the turbulence in the air from the disturbance of the shovel moving through the air.

I don’t have plans to replace my baby powder bottles while going on a search, but this would be great to bring on training days to see what the scent does in different conditions.

How cool!

What I Learned from My Operational Evaluation

Posted in pets, Rescue Training, Search and Rescue with tags , , on January 6, 2012 by rattlerjen

I passed!

Holy Cow! I am now an Operational Dog Handler after passing my search and rescue Operational 160 Acre Evaluation.

This is the 4-6 hour final test mock search to see if my dog and I have what it takes.

Rather than write a novella on all the things that happened.  (I don’t want to give away all the mysteries to those handlers not yet operational) I will give you a short synapsis and then a list of all the things I learned.

Search Senario

A small plane crashes in a forest with four passengers.  The pilot is found dead on the scene, but the three other passengers are missing. Evidence shows they walked away from the crash site.

Here’s What Happened.

  • Watched Grom the search dog jump into a stream and find it was too deep to his liking. Then, try to exit via a steep bank unsuccessfully.
  • Successfully found the “trail” that no longer exists and walked down it
  • Watched my dog stick his nose against the wind on several occasions rather than alerting into the wind. (To follow him or no?)
  • Cursed the 10mph wind for changing directions several times.
  • Powdered dog in the face while doping the wind
  • Successfully covered all the blank areas of the 160 acres first.  Then watch the clock tick down without a find.
  • Ran into several muggles enjoying the forest in the middle of my sector
  • Watched Grom indicate on a muggle speed walking a hiking trail and try to chase after him while keeping me in sight.  “Why do you keep running away?” – Grom
  • Walked too darn fast
  • Followed Grom into the woods in a large circle because he kept following the scent of someone out there instead of going directly to a point I intended first.  (Trust your dog, don’t just follow him around.)
  • Watch Grom ask one of my found subjects “Annie Annie, are you ok?” repeatedly at the top of his voice.
  • Practically walked over a subject while trying not to break my ankle on fallen logs. (Hey Jen, Walk slower!)
  • Watch the forest try to kill one of my evaluators
  • Wake up my last subject from a very nice long nap.
  • Catch up with a favorite former dog handler of the team.

Thanks to everyone involved in Testapalooza!

And a special congratulations to Chris and Daisy for also passing their Operational on the same day!

Here is what I have learned

  1. When something goes wrong, and it will, pick yourself back up and keep on going.
  2. Be confident in your skills.
  3. This is a learning opportunity.
  4. Your dog will mess up and that’s ok.
  5. Watch your pace.  It is not a stroll, but it is also not a double time death march.
  6. Take breaks. They are essential for your body and your brain and your dog.
  7. You and your dog are a team, be clue aware and set yourself and your dog up for success.
  8. In the real world, letting your dog trample the injured lost person in anticipation for play is probably a bad idea.
  9. Try not to kill your evaluator.
  10. Don’t treat it like a test, treat it like the real thing.

Working on that Backslide

Posted in dog training, pets, Rescue Training, Search and Rescue with tags , , , , on October 18, 2011 by rattlerjen

You saw it last week folks.

Grom started having problems during our trip to New Mexico.

We decided to take a huge step back with his training to do something fun.  Even an operational dog appreciates something very easy and fun every once in a while.  While you my enjoy a challenging job, you would burn out quickly if you did not have a few super easy days.

How far back did we decide to go?

How about an entire year!

We decided to do what is known as a run away.  It is an exercise he learned to do as a puppy!

I ran away with Grom’s toy and hid behind a bush.  Grom saw exactly where I went.  Aaron gave Grom all of his commands including, “Mission” (go search for the person), “Preach” (Bark at me to tell me you have found the person), called the dog back,  and “Save” (Lead me to the lost person).

On a real search and during many training days, we do not call the dog back to us and give him the “Preach” command.  The dog works on his own during a search and is often out of view of his handler.  His job is to find the person then come back to the handler to tell them he has found someone.  Therefore, I can only give him the preach command if I SAW him next to the lost person in the woods.

Grom ranges very far from me sometimes, often coming back to see were I am and to check the scent of the people walking with me before bounding out of sight again. Barking is how he tells me HE has found someone and to go follow him.  Sometimes when a dog “forgets” how to do something, you can give him little hints and encourage him to build confidence and make the exercise fun again.

Grom had a ball doing this fun little exercise


Did this little exercise solve our little problem?

Find out on Thursday.

And Some More Back-sliding

Posted in dog, dog training, pets, Rescue Training, Search and Rescue with tags , , , , , on October 13, 2011 by rattlerjen

Oh Grom, what has happened to your brain on this trip?  Did your mind get addled by the air plane ride?

The high altitude?

The green chile?

Our adventure into Grom’s training mishaps in New Mexico continue with our trip to Los Alamos and our training with the fantastic Canine Mountain Corps MC².  One member of this Los Alamos group volunteered to hide for our little fur ball. What a great guy!

We let the nice man hide himself in a spot well known to him and let him “cook” for a while.

Here is the lovely starting place, a field just inside of a little fence along a dirt road.

search dog starting task

Don’t you just love those pine trees out there?

I directed him down the road with the aim of my hand and off the little guy dashed.  Thinking back on it now, I should have given him some time in the area before sending him on a search.  Oh what cornucopia of wonderful smells he must have had wafting by his nose.  He was however, on a mission and darted off like a horse out of the starting gate.

search and rescue dog released

Grom covered the terrain like a champ dodging alien cacti and strange smelling sage brush in search of the hidden man.  A few trees needed to be watered of course, but he was doing a great job working his nose.

The ground was steep as we climbed up the mountain and I was out of shape.  The elevation of Los Alamos is 7,000 feet.  I really need to go to the gym more often!

The soft grass quickly morphed into sand the color of the sunset and sandy rocks with wavy lines to match.  Wonderful scented pines towered over the high desert landscape, providing green among the reds, oranges, and yellows of the surrounding rocks.  I tried to keep up with my little monster, but mostly resorted to walking.  I can’t imagine actually doing a long task out in these mountains with my low altitude body.

Maybe I need to train for Ironman or something…

search dog runs to indicate

Grom shows no lack of athletic ability as he literally runs circles around me.

We crossed several narrow but steep drainages as we criss-crossed the side of the mountain.  Grom disappeared over each rise, leaping like a desert coyote after a taunting crow, a huge grin on his face showing me how much fun he was having.

After a few minutes, Grom vanished over a rise into yet another drainage with his ears up and forward.  The little guy must have caught scent of something or someone.   I labored up to the hiking trail overlooking the drainage ahead when Grom came bounding back barking his little head off.

rescue indication bark

Off we raced towards the drainage ahead, Grom taking the trail to the drainage instead of back tracking the way he had come. He ran down the trail past the drainage then made a sharp right turn downhill.  Did this dog have any idea where he was going?

search dog returns forest scene

Half way down the hill I noticed a man sitting happily against a huge rock, waiting to play with a nice little black dog.  Where was the dog?

I pretend not to see the hidden man and walk towards my little search dog.

“What in the hell is he doing?  The man is RIGHT THERE!”

Looking at Grom sniffing at the ground I shrug my shoulders and ask, “Where is he?”

Grom looks at me uninterested and continues investigating the ground.  I walk forward to see what he was sniffing at and found an entire dear skeleton, nothing but bleached bones from the desert sun.

It was my turn to look confused.

“For Pete’s Sake that man has your TOYS!”

I called him off the bones and restarted him with his search command.

“Oh, right!  I was doing something”

Grom takes off towards the man, runs back, and gives a weak bark.  Heck, at this point I would take anything. I gave the dog the “show me where the man is” command and allowed the poor guy to finally play with the dog.

search dogs find in los alamos

Grom, of course, thought everything was just fine.  I, of course, threatened to serve him with a side of noodles.

Next up:  Attempts to solve the problem.

Grom’s Trip to New Mexico

Posted in dog, life with a working dog, pets, Rescue Training, Search and Rescue with tags , , , on September 6, 2011 by rattlerjen

It’s very exciting

Grom took his first airplane ride.

And promptly fell asleep.  He did not even mind getting searched at the security check point.

Once he was on the ground he thought it was time to learn to drive.

But his mom told him he was not old enough.

He met some other awesome search dogs from another search and rescue team.

A baby.

and a camel

How NOT to teach a dog to find a hidden person

Posted in dog training, howto, Rescue Training, Search and Rescue with tags , , , , , on August 16, 2011 by rattlerjen

Learn a Lesson from My Mistakes

The Goal: Find a person hidden in a tree stand after a 30 minute problem.

search dog field

Mistake: Expecting a dog has learned to generalize

I thought the dog would have no problem finding someone in a tree stand. He did it twice before.

Dogs don’t naturally generalize.  Grom would need to find several different people in different tree stands in different conditions in different locations on different days before I could say he “got it.”

Mistake: Assuming the dog has learned something from past trainings

Grom was on fire! He dashed down the trail with his nose in the air.  He saw the first tree stand and trotted over to it, obviously curious.  He even tried to climb up the thing!

The little furball did the same thing to the next two identical tree stands!  I was thrilled he was curious to check them all out. I assumed he must have learned that people can hide in tree stands from previous trainings and was checking them out just in case.  He might have just been curious of the strange structures and wanted a look at them close up.

search dog climbs tree stand

” This will be so easy when he gets to the tree stand with the person in it,” I thought.

Mistake:  Not knowing when to cue the dog

We reached the field 150 yards from the tree stand with the subject hidden in it.  Grom threw his nose in the air and caught scent and began criss-crossing the field in search of the scent’s source.  After a small distraction in the discovery of a nice turkey feather, the dog went over to check out this new tree stand.

He circled it a few times.  I got closer trying to determine if he was just checking this tree stand out like he had the others or was genuinely trying to find the source of the scent there.  I realized I made the mistake of getting too close after seeing the subject’s boot dangling out the entrance.

search dog tree stand target

Grom looked right at me, so I backed up thinking he would give me his tell-tale behavior of “I think I might have found something.”  I figured he would not indicate if he thought I saw the subject.  What was the need of indicating if mom was standing right next to the guy, right?  I expected Grom to trot towards me so I could give him the “Tell Me” command to bark.  Instead he trotted past me and began to investigate some grass on the side of the trail. “Greeeaat.”  Now what?

Mistake: Not asking the experience handler standing right next to us for feedback.

Later, we got great advice on how to set up the problem so the dog could learn from success. I honestly should have asked this person for advice even before starting the search.

search dog looking at handler

Old standby, put the dog in a down and give him some water while we figure out the next step.

Let’s just start again only 50 meters from the tree stand and restart the dog.

Up the hill we go.  Grom checks out the sides of the trail as we get closer to the tree stand.  Again, the pup heads right up to the structure and puts a paw up on the supports and looks up.  I cue Grom to indicate and he does so beautifully.  When I tell him to show me where the person is, he leads me right back to the tree stand.  Success!

search dog leading the find

Mistake: Making the dog wait for play.

Always reward the dog immediately.  We were told this over and over again.  I told Grom what a great dog he was as the subject came down to play with the dog.  Grom got great play, but it did not happen instantly at the source of the find.

So, what should we have done from the beginning to set the dog up for success?

I guess you will have to wait for Thursday’s post.

can i drive

Ok, you work the steering wheel.  I got the pedals.

Grom’s First Search

Posted in dog, life with a working dog, pets, Rescue Training, Search and Rescue with tags , , , , on July 21, 2011 by rattlerjen

Grom’s Mom has been in bed all week with a bad case of food poisoning while Dad  is both taking care of Mom and trying to catch up with work. The past two weeks have been filled with visiting family members and people having fun in the nation’s capital. For Grom this means meeting new people and lots of time in the house while everyone else gets to go have fun in the city.  So no searching for Grom for those two weeks, he’s got lots of energy built up.

Of course, that’s when the phone rings to tells us there is a search spooling up.  Grom is needed for his first search!  Mom however, is in no condition to walk with us, and has to stay in bed playing video games on her cell phone.

Grom passed his grueling Operational Search Test only a few weeks ago.  Did it prepare him for the real thing?

There were three other K9 teams from VSRDA and one from Dogs East at the search, each with a team walker and a law officer to escort. It’s going to be a hot day so we’re all anxious to get started before the sun gets too high in the sky.

We’re relieved to get started by 09:00 and everything begins just fine with Grom happily dashing back and forth across the search area at near to full speed.  He is very excited to finally be out searching again.

Grom has found something right at the beginning of the search!  Only it is black and furry just like him.  It just happens to be team mate K9 Sirius searching his sector!   They slowly face one another with their noses down for a few seconds, everyone is holding their breath hoping playtime does not break out and ruin the search.  But not to worry, both dogs are all business and simply go back to searching after being reminded with a “Get back to work.”

Like a little search machine, Grom quickly finds something else only a few minutes later!  Hidden in an area of tall grass is something he has never seen before. Grom follows the scent over to investigate. This new thing leaps up and clumsily bounds away.

“Hey wait!  I just wanted to say hi!”

Grom is very excited to meet Bambi for the first time! I am also very excited as I run after them both  yelling like a maniac, trying to call Grom off a fawn for the first time.

“Wait!, Stop! No! OFF OFF OFF!”

Right at the place the first fawn leaped from is another fawn, curled up in a tight ball hoping desperately,

“You can’t see me. You can’t see me.”

Unfortunately this doesn’t work and  as we move closer, the second fawn decides that’s close enough and darts off into K9 Sirius’ sector. A quick radio call to the other searchers in the area is made to give them a warning and as we move away from the baby deer , Grom comes back with a big grin on his face.

“That was fun!” Grom seems to say.

“I sure hope this does not ruin the dog for the rest of the search.” I say, “Grom had never found a deer before.”

The dog gets a second to cool off and then restarts with his magic search word, hopefully with a little more focus now. Grom takes off again, back on task with the deer forgotten; his head is back in the search.

Grom loves to work and he’s bounding happily through thick brush leaving his slow human followers to push and cut their way through the thick brambles. Soon the bushes give way to lighter coverage and near the creek, the dog is getting excited.  His nose, tail, and ears are up in the air; he’s prancing on his toes.  He smells something and this time it is human.

The dog is alerting wildly and the whole search party starts to watch him carefully. As Grom trots back and forth he’s trying to catch the edge of the scent, but it’s big and he’s getting frustrated. This is where everyone starts to spread out and inspect the surrounding around. We all remind ourselves what to do next, “Watch the dog, and put on your “Clue Awareness” hat.

What doesn’t belong in this scene?  The trees aren’t lost.

That’s when we see something that just doesn’t belong. It’s in an area the dog cannot reach but it’s directly down wind spreading scent over the whole area he’s been alerting in.  Our search party gets together and decides to send one of our walking companions over to check it out. As his human balances across a log to get a better look Grom is getting pushy and tries to get out on the log too. “sorry buddy, you need to stay here.” I say as I  call him back and hook him up.

That’s when our walker turns and gives us a nod.

Team Grom has made the find of a missing person on their very FIRST search together!

Good Dog!

Good human partner!

Operational Test 160: Part Two

Posted in dog training, pets, Rescue Training, Search and Rescue with tags , , , , on July 14, 2011 by rattlerjen
(read Operational Test Part One)
The thunder is getting closer.

It’s 92 degrees in the shade and I’m begging for a nice cooling shower to cool things down. If you’re in the sun at all, you’re baking. Grom has been getting breaks about every 15 minutes so he’s not doing too badly. We’re all getting low on water and there’s no question we could all use a little break.

search dog drinking

As my subject goes back to base, she promises to send someone down the road with a big jug of water to replenish our supplies. I give her a big hug and thank her for suffering for my test. She’s been out here a long time. I remind myself again that this is about me and Grom becoming operational, but it takes a team to certify a dog.

We rest in the shade and wait for resupply.

I study the map and look at what I have left to cover in my sector. It is a big chunk of land. It’s got more terrain features and the possibility of moving water.  If there’s no water in the stream beds it’s going to be a long day because Grom is getting hot. He’s taking longer to recover after every break. That’s when I finally feel the first rain drops hitting my hat.

Silently, I make a wish to be really wet.

It’s not happening though. My promised rain storm turns out to be some thunder, a little breeze, and a light misting. I watch steam rise off the woods and wonder if this was really the smartest thing I’ve ever done.

My plan is to work 50 meters into the forest, while following the curve of the road. To accomplish this task, I ask one of my evaluators to walk the road so I can keep track of where I need to be without having to actually be on the road. In theory, Grom will work between me and my walker. Plus, he’ll work away from us, covering more area. The danger is that he will see the walker on the road and think he’s a missing person. Shaking off any doubt, I remind myself that I trust my dog. I’m pleased as he does it just perfectly.

We get to the beginning of a dry stream bed that comes very close to the road.

I’ve had more than enough straight line madness for the day.

My next line will take us down along the bed of this stream, covering the area by following contour lines.

I busy myself by hanging flags and checking my map. The next time I look down, I have to smile. Grom has found the stinkiest puddle of mud in the whole forest. He’s romping around up and down the stream as it turns from mud to water. He’s earned a little mud bath so I give him a couple minutes in the water. He comes back to me covered in muck and looking about as happy as I’ve ever seen a dog. Grom is going to smell awful all the way home, but he’s cooling down and I’m less worried about him overheating.

muddy search dog

Up ahead I think I see something that looks like a shelter so we start to hug the stream bank going down hill away from it. When we’re directly down hill from it, Grom turns his head and give a little start at the smell.

The next thing I know he’s running up the hill. He comes back to face me; his barks are strong and loud.

I let him get to six barks before I finally give in to him and let him lead me back to his new favorite person. This happens to be another of my subjects, but not one of the people I was told should be out here. No, this person was in the area “on a hike.” She happened to have seen my subjects in their fictional paraglider and got lost trying to follow them.

I pull out the radio to call into base with co-ordinates and a request for someone to walk her out to civilization. The problem is the further I get down into this drainage, the worse my radio reception gets. I’m spending more time fighting to be heard on the radio than I am talking to Grom’s new friend. I realize the mistake I’m making when one of my evaluators asks if she’s provided any new clues. Luckily, she’s still here.

I get her little piece of the puzzle.


My lost hiker has pointed me to the area we haven’t covered yet. Which is good, it means I haven’t missed anyone yet; one of my biggest fears right now.

Another consultation with my map tells me that if I work the contours of the stream on the south side, I should come up to the stream head I started at. I’ll be able to work a big flat area to the south. My sector is getting smaller as we work along the hill side.

I’m watching Grom very carefully.

Probably a little too carefully. When we come across an opening in the woods with several trees laying down in a circle, I send him into it twice. I’m just sure that this would be a great place to hide a subject. But after two passes through the pile of downed trees I decide that Grom isn’t picking anyone up because no one is there.

We press on along the side of the hill. I check my watch.

We’re coming up on four hours in this heat and it’s starting to take a toll on everyone.

I reach the drainage that should take me to roughly where I started my last line and turn to follow it. I should see something that I’ve seen before. What I find instead is a little wooden bridge that I’ve never seen before. I’m confused. I turn around to look at my evaluators to see if I can read anything on their faces. The only thing I see on either face is sweat and dust. At this point the most important thing I can think of is figuring out where I am.  I don’t want to miss someone in the hole I’ve created in this sector.

I point my compass at where the road should be, and start walking.

I get to the top of the next hill and find a trail that leads over the bridge I had stumbled onto. More importantly, I can see down into the next drainage where I spot my line of flagging tape. I take a deep breath.

I know where I am now.

As I turn to tell my evaluators that I am now properly oriented, I spot a big piece of fabric that looks suspiciously like a clue. I’m quiet as everyone catches up and I survey the area around me. I’m looking for a likely place to hide a subject.

When I look down at Grom, he’s smiling.

“That’s cute” I think to myself, “he knows we’re close to the end.” But then he looks at the ground, and quickly looks back up at my face. Almost to as if to say, “Hey Dad, Look what I found!” As he looks back at the ground, I follow his eyes to a large pile of scat laying not more than ten feet from our clue.

I can feel the words forming on my lips as he takes a half step back, rears up on his hind legs, twists, and power dives into the pile of poop!

“NO! OFF! LEAVE IT! OFF! NO! ……. Oh for the love of….. GET OUT OF THAT!”

Its too late. He’s rolling in it. I reach down to pull him off the pile he’s so lovingly smeared all over his body. If I thought he was going to smell bad before….

I pull him away from his little pile of joy and take him to the other side of the trail where I can use some of my water to wash him off. While I’m washing him I can hear my evaluators snickering, loudly.

Finally, he’s as clean as he’s going to get. One of my evaluators leans over me and says “I want to see him do a long recall so if you see the subject, steer wide.” I nod a little. I’m still thinking about the two hour drive home with my fragrant dog in the back seat.

I just want this test to be over. Everyone around me looks like they’re thinking the same thing.

I have to work my clue, which means walking a big circle. My subject has to be around here somewhere. We head into the drainage and I see Grom’s ears go straight up in the air.

“Fine,” I think “you want to see him do a long recall, I’ll make sure he has to find her on his own.”

I watch Grom make bigger circles around me working the scent. I start to talk and unstrap my waist belt. My pack hits the ground and I can finally adjust my belt. It’s been creeping down for the last two hours and I see my evaluators both give me a slightly confused look. As if to say,


What I don’t say out loud is I have to be doing something or Grom stops working. When I see him crest the hill to my left I know he’s got something. I Lift my pack back onto my shoulders and make a couple of adjustments to my shoulder straps. Grom charges back to me and looks up at my face.


His barks are just music to me. He’s not faking it, he’s not unsure, he’s not even a little hesitant. If I hadn’t been so hot and tired, I would have done a little dance.

We all had to settle for the “take me there” command and a run up the hill instead. As I cross over the little hill top, I see her. The last and final subject, in the longest, hardest test I’ve done with Grom.

This one is special. You see, this is Grom’s find. He had to find her and lead me back to her all by himself, because I never saw her. For all Grom knows, I am just messing with my gear and getting ready to head off in the opposite direction. He has to convince me otherwise.

Grom the search and rescue dog

Grom is there to save her.

That’s what a Search Dog does, and Grom is now officially a Search Dog.

Operational 160 – Part One

Posted in pets, Rescue Training, Search and Rescue with tags , , , , , , , on June 28, 2011 by rattlerjen

Real World Search vs Testing Search:

It’s 06:30 in the morning. The missing cadet we’ve been looking for has made her way to one of the flashing cruisers parked on the road that surrounds the search area. After spending a night lost in the woods, she’s on her way home to some clean clothes and happy parents. This is why we do everything we do, to send people home to their loved ones. We love a happy ending.

My only disappointment is that our real search has canceled Grom’s 160 acre Operational Evaluation.

in training search harness

Grom is at home in the air conditioned living room, plotting.

You see, he watched us pack this morning, knowing that when the muddy boots and heavy packs go into the truck, it means serious play time for him. We have been called out on a real search and so we made the choice to leave him at home. We didn’t want to leave him in the hot truck all day for nothing. I would probably be lying if I said he was anything less than angry with us when he heard the door lock and he was still in his crate.

But a happy end to a search is a happy end, and we’re all in a good mood when the man who would be my evaluator pulls into the parking lot. With congratulations all the way around, he checks his watch and you can see the decision bouncing around in his head. Is there’s still enough time to get the Grom and go down to the training site where we were going to run the 160….

“Let’s go. We can still get your test in today, we’re done with the search early enough.”

As I add up the time to go back to the house, pack up the rest of the gear, and make it down to the site I realize we’re looking at an 11:00 AM start time. “Are you sure? It’s supposed to be warm today.” He’s adamant that everything will be fine. Since he’s going to be one of the people out there suffering with me.  I agree. On the way back to the house I check the weather forecast again only to realize I’ve just talked myself into a 90 degree search, with 85% humidity.

We make record time down to the training site.

It’s 10:30 when we roll into base, I see a few cars around but fewer people. It’s a training day and people are out in the field working their dogs. My second evaluator is sitting by his truck shuffling papers.  I resolve to make this a fast briefing so we can get out into the field as fast as possible. This is as close to a real briefing as you get in the training process.

task assignment form

For the first time, I’m given a state radio that lets me talk to people very far away and a Task Assignment Form.

The topographical map that’s attached to my form has a sector outlined on it that looks to be about the size of a small airport.  I swallow hard, knowing there’s no chance I can cover it all in 6 hours, especially in this heat. There’s at least two people out there, even though they aren’t moving around, I’m sure they’re baking just like we are.

So I suck it up and suit up the dog– it’s game time.

The undefined boundary of my sector is 500 meters up a trail to the north of the road that splits my sector in two. Once we’re at the trail head I give Grom his marching orders and set him loose, making sure that he’s working the east side of the road. Every 50 meters or so I walk into the woods on that side. I’m fighting with my pace beads that have become hopelessly tangled in my strap trying to count out 500 meters. By the time I get to 5 beads, I look around for a tree branch to hang a corner flag from. We stop to rest for a couple minutes while I make sure all is as it should be.

Hanging Search Flags

The compass needle says something to me I don’t like. Looking at the map and comparing the bearing of the road to the line on my map I know I’ve over shot my boundary, but I don’t know by how much. Once I pass this test, I am allowed to reach into my pack and ask the GPS how many meters I’m off, but right now I’m living in a pre-GPS world and I have no idea how far off the line I am. (No GPS usage on the tests!)  I chew on it for a minute and one of my evaluators asks me how I know I’m not where I should be. So I give him the whole sorry story, and when I get to the end, I’m left in the same predicament I started with. How far off am I?

When in doubt, do it anyway.

I make the decision to go from where I am, one extra grid line won’t kill me. I’ll just sweat more. We turn east and I start hanging flags.  This place is going to get the full treatment.

There’s a rhythm to getting it all done right.

Check your bearing, count your paces, have a flag ready when you get to the your point, and hang a flag. It takes a few tries. By the time I get to the ditch I think should be my far boundary, I realize I can’t tell if is the ditch I’m looking for or if I’m pulling the same trick I pulled on the road. I think there should be another ditch 30 paces away if I did my math right and that’s where I’ll need to hang my second corner flag.

Fortunately, there is a second ditch, it’s 40 paces away but it’s close enough that I’m content with it. Grom is looking a little hot, so we stop for a few minutes to get a drink and rest in the shade. I’m really hoping there’s some running water in this bit of woods so he can splash around and cool off, we haven’t found it yet. After a few minutes I turn our little band south and we move down to start the second cross grid.

hot search dog

I’m getting better at the bearing/flag/pace/hang game

I occasionally start to check the wind to see if there’s any movement. My travel sized bottle of baby powder has 8 holes in the top.  I let the powder drift down to the ground I swear I see it form 8 little piles. There is no wind at all in the woods today, except where a sunny spot breaks through the canopy. There the sunlight heats the air and makes it’s own wind, directly up.

“that will be funny after I pass this test, if I pass this test.”

We make a couple passes through the brush, resting at the boundaries or when ever Groms tongue gets wide enough I’m afraid he’ll step on it. The thermometer on my evaluators pack says 90 and I hear thunder in the distance. It cant get much more humid.

It’s on the fourth grid that we come across a line of trees that have fallen like dominos. Going east to west, they line up like a fence and I’m tired of going over trees so I shoot my bearing try to walk along them, keeping my bearing as straight as possible. I think it’s not going so bad, until I pop out onto the road and stare at a flag I hung at the beginning of the last trip in the other direction. I swear the dog is laughing at me since he knows he already sniffed this bush. This is a recoverable error and I move everyone south down the road more than normal to make up for the drift. We start our trip back toward the far boundary.

I’m beginning to wonder how bad the storm was that knocked all these trees down. We’re back in another bunch of downed oaks when I find the dog standing under a big branch staring up at something. I go over to investigate what he’s found. My heart starts to beat a little faster because I know it could be a clue.

“whatcha got bud…..dy….?”

There, right in front of me, is a piece of my flagging tape hanging from a tree. I did it again; I’m back in area I’ve already covered.

My internal debate rages. If I turn south and pick up where I Should be, I can just keep moving and leave the hole in my grid for later. If I go back to the road to correct my grid that’s at least 20 minutes of rewalking the same line. The day is only getting hotter. My debate becomes external to give my evaluators a clue about what I’m thinking. They both nod patiently as I yammer.

Finally, calm returns and I choose choice d) none of the above.

I’ll go back half way since I’m not too far into my sector and correct from there. When we get back to the correct flag, I turn south and start to move into an area with less deadfall and more shade. There’s a spider web in the bush I’m pushing my way through and as I clear it from my glasses I see something hanging from a tree.

A big piece of fabric that could be from the “ultralight” I’m out here to find dangles from a branch.

The evaluator twins come up behind me. I go into clue mode hanging a long flag from a near by tree.  I’m looking around for my dog so we can start our 360 degree circle around our clue. My Plan is pouring out of my mouth when I spot Grom standing ten meters from a tree staring at what could be the edge of a tarp.

“Why isn’t he indicating?”

I’m about ready to call the whole thing off when I realize that there’s still no air moving.

If Grom can’t smell a person, even if something that looks like a person, it’s all just furniture to him. He gets one more chance here. I make a clicking noise that he knows means something interesting is happening where I am so he comes running back to me. I give him a look and line him up in a direction away from where he was standing so I can give him the search command again. As I release him, he goes directly back to that tree and returns at a full run. I’ve started to walk away from him so he has to come all the way around to find my face. The barks come out loud and strong, and I smile to myself before I let him lead me back to my first subject.

search dog indication

By the time I get to her, Grom is harassing her for his toy. I have to hold him while I make sure this is who I’m looking for and that she’s alright. I break out my map and start to get the radio going. The evaluators give their blessing to giving Grom some play,

“but not too much, he still has work to do.”

We all decide it’s a good time to rest. I decide that it’s a good time to start breathing again.

One subject down, an unknown number left to go.

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