Archive for operational test

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.

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.

Obedience and Agility Test

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

Last Saturday Grom the search and rescue dog completed his Agility and Obedience Test at the Urban Disaster Dog Search and Rescue training facility in Maryland known as Search Assist.  This is where they train those awesome disaster dogs you see on TV.

This is the very first time he has been on a big boy teeter totter.  This thing was huge!

It appears it did not phase the boy much.  All of that climbing and trouble making around the house finally paid off!

One of the more difficult elements in the Obedience is the emergency down or platz. Grom must hit the deck when we tell him, a very useful command to learn, especially if he is about ready to cross a road with a car coming or some other danger.  I was strolling along waiting for the dog to wander far enough away from me.  Grom was quite impressed with all of the fun training rubble piles and buses he saw.


And Yes, he passed both tests.

Night evaluation

Posted in life with a working dog, pets, Rescue Training, Search and Rescue with tags , , , , on June 7, 2011 by demigorge

I’m tired, sweaty, and frustrated.

I’m also actually in danger of timing out. You see, I’ve been out here for almost three hours and my search plan has not worked out the way I intended. I have a four hour time limit and I still have no idea where my subject is. My pack is laying on the ground with the map on top as I plot what will be my last hope at putting Grom in a good place to make a find. I am making plans and rejecting them just as quickly. I look down at him as he rests with his head on my bag, silently asking for  “just a 5 minute nap”.

sleepy search dog

I need him awake so we can consult about the plan, and as I look up, my headlamp catches the reflective tape on my evaluators pack from the stump he’s seated on 10 meters away. He’s just as tired and hot as me and the dog.

How did I get here?

This is my night test. Even though my briefing was actually fairly casual and I got to ask lots of questions as we went through all of the requirements and criteria, it’s still a test that I can fail. My spirits are high as we joked and laughed about how all the young rangers in the park were crushing on one of my evaluators. I packed up my gear, while we waited for the darkness to set in.

Here’s the thing though,  I have heard horror stories from everyone about how they got lost on their night evaluation and panicked. I’m desperate to not be that guy,  so I really took my time with my undefined boundary. Even though I opened the glow sticks and cracked them at the trail head, I didn’t realize that they didn’t have hangers on them until I started hanging them. Plus, I didn’t open enough of them. One hour of my test gone and only my undefined boundary is marked.

light sticks

By the time I’ve done my second grid line I realize that if I’m going to grid the whole sector, I will be here until the sun comes up.  I’ll be there alone because my evaluators will have given me a fail and gone home. The pressure to abandon search strategy plan “A” is mounting both internally and from my evaluators.

I’m all up for changing my plan, except there’s no good plan to be had. The hot and sticky day has turned into a hot and sticky night with no breeze to cool me or Grom, much less carry a scent to his sensitive nose. All I know for sure is that if I keep going this way, I’ll time out before I hit the road on the other side of my sector.

A little detour to get here.

“We’ll walk contour lines of the drainages,” I guess.

night search test

There’s nothing moving in the woods tonight except me, my puppy, and my two evaluators. I’m starting to get frustrated because there is no good plan B, so I’m going with what I know. It’s half way through the second dive down into the sector that I see Grom start to perk up.  I tell one of my evaluators to stand right here while I see what the dog is into.  I start to slide up and over fallen trees and under big branches following the dog a good 30 meters from where I left my mobile land mark.

When I turn around to check my path, I see both my evaluators standing not 5 meters from me.  My dog is crossing the hill top in the opposite direction. I make a mental note; I can’t really leave one of them standing there, not evaluating. Mentally I put a flag on my map that says “Stand right here” where we were and hang a little flag I’ll never see again on a tree.  Grom is speeding off higher onto the hill and I follow him the next hundred meters before the scent peters out and he’s left standing in a clearing with that same pained, frustrated look that says

“but my toy was right…um… somewhere!”

I’ve burned off a good two and a half hours at this point

A find right now would be excellent. The wind and my plan are not cooperating and so we cruise down the other side of the hill, hoping to catch something.  I see my undefined boundary marked by glow sticks off in the distance.

Time is not my friend tonight.

I start to work a different plan out in my head.

If I break the sector into parts, I can cover the rest of the center area I’m in then move northwest to a different section. My plan was to work up the second drainage in the sector until I get to the flat portion and then work the hill that’s left in the middle.  But now that I’m in the middle section on top of the hill, my plan starts to seem foolish. Even Grom is beginning to give me the eye.  I get really frustrated and call for a break to rest my dog and drop my pack.

Here I am again…

With Grom’s head resting on my pack, I start to really analyze my plan. I know I’m going to have to write off one portion of the sector to make time and I hope my subject isn’t there. Looking at the map I start to take inventory of what we’ve done and where we are on the map. The more I roll it around in my head, the better my plan seems. I can feel the weight of indecision being lifted off my shoulders. I’m feeling better about this, even if it’s not a winning plan it’s a plan I can justify.

As my spirits start to pick up, I rally my evaluators. Grom starts to get excited. He’s rolling around on the ground trying to wrestle my pack into submission so I know he’s ready for the next hour be it a pass or a fail. Once I’ve explained my plan to my evaluators, it’s time to restart my partner. Grom is so excited, he starts to bite at the moths gathering at my head lamp, not three inches from my nose.

I think he’s ready to work some more.

I send him off in the direction I want to cover . We’re not on the move for more than a couple minutes before he’s leading me off my line with an excited gleam in his eye; his ears and tail pointing straight up. When he comes back to me it’s not to bark, but to give me a look that says “Follow Me.”

light on dog

So I follow the dog.

As he leads me into a clearing I turn to check on my party, turning just enough that I loose sight of Grom at the edge of bush.  The next time I see him it’s the bright green glow of his eyes looking straight into my light as he looks for my face to give his indication. The first bark is real, the second is powerful, and the rest are just lots of exclamation points. He’s not faking it so I tell him to take it away and he bounds off into the bush… to the wrong tree.

Once he’s back on to the subject I can finally see her. As we run toward her I look down and see the second drainage we’d walked 45 minutes before. It is not more than 30 meters from her. If I hadn’t been so busy running I’m sure I would have let a couple choice words out. We’re on top of the subject before I can let any go.

My subject turns out to be a belligerent drunk who is neither happy to see me nor thrilled at the prospect of going back to the real world. I’m trying hard not to bust out laughing as she says she’d happily walk out for a bottle of rum. My report back to base is to give co-ordinates, and request someone with more “people skills” to come talk to her. My evaluator  takes my report, checks my location against his GPS and says

“Roger, we’ll send someone out…. Okay, someone play with that dog.”

I look down at my watch and breath deeply for the first time all night long. Finished with 20 minutes left.

Now, I have to go thank Grom for being so awesome.

Dense Brush Test

Posted in life with a working dog, pets, Search and Rescue with tags , , , , , , on June 2, 2011 by demigorge

For some reason I have decided that this is the first test I need to be nervous about

though I’m not certain why. It’s really the same test as all the others with thicker bushes in the way. Only this time, we are in the Land with No Magnetic North. I’m not terribly worried because I typically only rely on compasses when I’m forced. I learned long ago how to orient myself against the sun, and failing that I’m pretty handy reading a map. So when we show up, we have our game faces on and we are ready to rock and roll.

I’m working on getting the briefing time down so I can spend more time in the field working with the dog. We fire through the briefing and we’re going to work the sector directly off the road behind the parking lot. This means all we have to do is get over to the other side of the road and lock the bearing line of my lensatic compass over the north arrow and that will determine how I work my grid lines. As soon as we march over to the start point we can dive right in.

Radio check, Starting task and We’re Off!

The first line isn’t bad, it’s my undefined where I’m marking my sector against the arbitrary line drawn on my map. It’s pretty wide and open here so I can shoot long bearings and manage a pretty straight line. I’m telling my evaluator/shadowman where I’m hanging imaginary flags and what kind of flag I’m hanging to mark different portions of my undefined. I begin to wonder what all the fuss is about as the going isn’t so tough. When we get to the stream bed I take my turn and follow it down away from my boundary. As I put the bearing line on the south needle of my compass I check the sun to see where it is in relation to the bill of my hat. That’s when I notice that a thunder storm has started to roll in and the sun is moving in and out from behind the clouds.

It’s not a make or break thing and I have a decent idea of where the sun is supposed to be, even if I can’t always see it I got at least one good look at it. My first bearing is long and we start marching, making sure little Grom is excited to be here. Not surprisingly, he’s ramped up and running like he would rather be here than anywhere else. Half way through the sector I look down to check my bearing and see my compass pointing due north, which is roughly 90 degrees from where it should be pointing. I check the sun and it’s where it’s supposed to be and I say to myself, “No, not only no. But hell no.

It can’t be THIS bad…..”

dense search

I march through the rest of my grid, I notice the compass never really gives a consistent bearing, right or wrong. The sun is where it’s supposed to be when it’s anywhere at all, but the needle doesn’t do anything even remotely predictable.  When I pop out on the road I’m relieved to see that I’m about the right distance down the road if not just a tad further than I’d hoped. I see a large branch that’s fallen out of the canopy and broken into three pieces in the middle of the road and make a mental note of it as a decent land mark.  Again we turn away from my undefined and march down the road so we can turn back into the brush.

Grom is happiest in the brush, he knows his reward is in there.

On the road he’s just killing time smelling things and occasionally stopping to leave a message for any one else that happens to come by. So by the time I have my next grid lined up he’s more than happy to dive in after us and we make our way through to the middle of the sector. Something that’s becoming harder to do because the sun is no longer playing peekaboo. I’m becoming less amused with it and my evaluator is developing a permanent smirk. The kind you get when you know the punch line to the joke someone else is telling– and you still think it’s funny.

dense brush

Half way through this grid line the dog goes into three point mode with his tail high and his ear listening for something only he can hear. I watch him carefully as we cross a fairly open area and he dives into a bush south of us, in the area we haven’t gotten to yet. He’s in full uniform, so I can hear the bear bells jingling away as he crashes through things Briar Rabbit would think twice about. After a few seconds they start to come back and I watch his behavior looking to see if he’s wearing his “GOT IT” face or if he’s got the “I thought I had it…..” expression. By the time he reaches us he’s got the canine equivilent of a head scratch going on and I take another look toward where the sun is supposed to be and march back into the bush, making a note to pay special attention to this area on the next pass.

Unfortunately the bush I’ve marched into is thick scrub oak, but it’s just tall enough I think I see a clearing not 15 meters away. The clearing never comes but after 15 meters I think I see another. The going is getting thicker as we get closer to the water and I start to say things out loud like

“stupid Handler, marching us into a never ending thicket…..”

To his credit, my evaluator never makes a peep about it and just follows in the path I’ve bulled my way through. By the time I’ve started to reconsider my decision it’s as far back as it was in, so I push to the water.

Guilt feels like wet socks….

The water is not really water though. It’s marshy muck. There is no way I’m going back through the briar and scrub I’ve fought so hard to get here, so I thank my pack check list for making me bring extra socks and sink ankle deep into the muck. As I turn around I see my evaluator has a scratch on his cheek and I feel really bad because I made the man bleed. We hop from one “dry” spot to another when he sinks his walking stick into the mire and says

“heh, it’s only 18 inches deep…”

Finally, there’s a clearing on the bank we can scramble up and fight our way through a measly 10 meters of brush and briar.  Grom is happy as can be, smelling like a swamp and happy to finally be back on running ground. I take a look at my compass and check the sun. Neither is telling me anything useful  when I catch a glimpse

of my now naked dog.

Some where in the brush, or the muck, he’s managed to strip himself of his search vest and he’s now running naked as a city dog in a park. I’m a little panic stricken. I’m wondering if the dog will search with no vest on. I’m wondering if I should go back and get it. I’m wondering if my wife will kill me for losing his vest in the woods. All good questions, but I have someone in the woods waiting for me to find them and I have to get to them before my time runs out.

I decide to chance it and we continue, letting him work au natural.

When we break back out on the road I think it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, until I see the same branch broken into three pieces laying in the middle of the road. I thank many days of my misspent youth for teaching me so many of the “important words” in other languages; there are kids in these woods.

Counting up the number of cool points I’m loosing, we turn back down the road and go to where I should have come out and then a little more to correct for the drift that came out before we march back into the forest.

Half way through the next grid line Grom takes off again. This time I can’t hear him, so I have to follow. He’s going north now, toward the area we’ve already been through and I’m thinking this is a sign. He’s shown interest here twice. Letting him work and following slowly he makes a few passes through a clearing and returns to me.

He looks unsure, frustrated, and tired. Then,  he barks.

But it’s not his normal “OH MY GOD YOU HAVE TO SEE WHAT I FOUND” bark. It’s his “…. ARGH! I know it’s ….SOMEWHERE!” bark.

My evaluator says coolly, “you don’t look like you believe him….” and I reply, “that’s because I don’t. he’s venting.”

So we rest for a minute. Grom goes into a down stay and I consult my map, trying to read the terrain and do my report to base. The dog needs to cool off and get some water in him. When I restart him he gets up and wanders away from the area where he was most interested.

My broken compass not withstanding, I correct as best as I can for Grom’s little rally and we continue to grid this part of the sector.

When we get back to the same tree stump that I saw before, I let out a sigh and roll my eyes harder than I ever did as a teenager. I’m flustered, for only the second time inside the sector, I know exactly where I am. This place I have been to as well.

Turning to my evaluator, I adopt my best professional manners.

“Permission to skip this… crap….”

He says everything I’m thinking in my head, only out loud,

“…Hell Yeah.”

We turn back away from my undefined and again try to correct for my wander. When I think we’ve got it I turn to my bearing, look for the sun and check my compass. To my great surprise, it’s as bad as it was in the upper portion of my sector and there’s still no sun. So I take my best guess and we charge through what will ultimately be my last grid, but not the end of my search.

The Terrain has changed.

Where it had been slight hills and drainages to the north, this is more dramatic and I know from my map approximately where I am. I have only a slight clue about what direction I’m going but there’s some water down here and I watch the dog happily scamper through it, cooling off from what has become a truly hot and sticky morning.

We come out on to the road we’re on a section that I’m not expecting to see.

I’ve managed to skip down the road at least 300 meters past where I wanted to be. This leaves a huge gaping hole in my search pattern and it is very far from the area where Grom was telling me he was on to something. To complicate things, the terrain is very different with bigger hills and deeper valleys.  It calls for a different search pattern.

I’m a little tired, and a lot frustrated

My search strategy didn’t call for leaving vast tracts of land unsearched.  Try to grid it again will get me more of what I already have, wandering off bearing and ending up in places I’ve already been. My plans have served me well in the past; I’m reluctant to completely abandon it regardless of how badly it’s gone. I’m a little tired, very hot, taking a lot longer than I wanted, and very frustrated at all the things that have gone wrong so far– making a good decision gets harder with each of those things.

All of them together makes me start to think about how I’m going to time out and have to retest.

Looking at my map I have a clue about where I am, but I’m not positive. Finally, I make a decision. I’m going to leave my evaluator on the road and march into the woods… to take care of some personal business…… While we’re out there the dog and I have a little heart to heart and discuss our options.

By the time we come out of the woods we’ve reached consensus; Team Grom has a plan.

I see a particular bend in the road where the elevation changes more than any other place in our sector so I now know exactly where I am.  We’re going to go back toward the undefined boundary and cover the ground we’ve missed. We’re going to do it by following contour lines instead of gridding. As I communicate the New plan to my dirty, tired, and sweaty evaluator, he only nods when I mention that I wanted to do something else.

The dog insisted this was the best plan.

After about 5 minutes of rest we’re back in the woods working our way along a single elevation that goes around a couple of drainages before we’re back in the middle of the sector. Into dense scrub oak our line north has met with another hill and we turn south to follow the contour further into the sector.

The dog puts on his Super Grom Face.

I only catch glimpses of pointy ears and tail when he dives in.  I see him working back and forth, tearing through a stand of scrub oak looking for an opening.  I tell my evaluator that the dog’s definitely into something. Grom is going vaguely in the direction of my line so I adjust and follow him in when he suddenly flashes past me from right to left and disappears in to another stand of bushes and then… nothing.

I can’t hear anything from him. I quietly curse his lost vest with bear bells, now sinking further into the swamp. And then just as quickly he’s back in front of me, barking his little head off.

I haven’t seen anyone else out here. I couldn’t see him when he went in. I have no idea if he’s actually made the find or not, I do the one thing I know will make or break us– a false indication that I can’t read is a huge problem. I believe him.

I give him the command to take me where ever he wants.

Grom has a new friend.

I think I see a tarp. Then I see her dressed in camo, laying as still as can be with my dog excitedly trying to be her new best friend. “Hi,” I  say, playing the part of searcher #1

” Are you lost? I’m here to help…”

Silently, in my head, I’m thinking that I haven’t been this happy to see anyone in a very long time. Even with a naked dog, broken faith in magnetic north, and soaking socks; I am indeed, a very happy man.

Bring Me a Shrubbery!

Posted in dog, dog training, pets, Search and Rescue with tags , , , , , on May 26, 2011 by rattlerjen


Jen’s Open Field Test

Wait, does this lady have to take the same test twice?  If you have already read my husband’s blog posting about his Open Field Test, you might be confused.  Search and Rescue dogs are teamed up with a single person, their handler.  They will not work for just anyone.  The dogs and their human partners form a working relationship.  Grom has the challenge of trying to work with two people.  This is like trying to learn two different languages for him.  So, he must be tested for everything twice.  Once with me and once with my husband.

Frankly, I was worried about today’s test.  It was to be humid, with possible thunderstorms and in the mid eighties.  This is not a good set of conditions for a black dog with no tree cover; Grom can overheat quite quickly if I do not watch him closely and keep him cool. I was prepared to take my time with lots of puppy breaks.
I arrived at the meadow thirty minutes early and decided to hit the corner store for some junk food and refreshments.  I know my evaluator likes bottled tea, but could not remember exactly which kind, so I bought four.  I arrived at the scene and let G-man do his business out in the field.  My evaluator called out something I could not quite make out.  Seconds later a pack of small terriers came charging up the dirt road, barking at my poor pup.  Uh oh, is this going to be like my husband’s test with the happy puppy attack half way through? Grom hurried to finish his business and quickly scrambled into his crate. What a wimp!  I made happy noises at the obviously friendly little dogs as their owner came jogging around the corner apologizing as she hurried by.
I gathered my gear and had a pow wow with my evaluator.  Once done with the briefing I was handed a laminated map.  One side had a Google satellite image of the area not to UTM scale and the other side a UTM scaled topographical map of the area.  I grabbed the dog’s toys and suited him up.  He spun around in his crate twice with excitement.
The only way into the search area without climbing a fence was a gateway halfway down the fence line.  I zig-zagged through while Grom inhaled the many horse and doggie smells from last weekend’s steeplechase race. I ask Grom to take a nice relaxing rest in the shade while I gather my wits.  Looking down at my shoes catching sight of my radio, I remember to do a radio check.
“Base, radio check.”
to which my evaluator responds,
“Base wants to know who you are.”
 “Base this is team Alpha, radio check.”
I was reminded to identify myself as my unit number and to tell them how many people are in my group.
“Base this is Unit 25, par two.  Starting task.”
“Base notes unit 25 starting task.”

I cut right to walk down the fence line for my very first sweep of the area, my first mistake.  Since the entrance started in the middle of my fence line I should have turned left first to start my grid.  I left a gap in my search area that included two horse jumps someone easily could have been behind.  Ignorant of my mistake, I went on to the end of the fence and went up to do a 75 meter spaced map

At the end of my first pass I encountered a much larger area.  I decided to split it up into two.  I kept talking so that the evaluator knew what I was thinking, fodder for later.   The stream ran through the lower sector allowing for many opportunities for Grom to cool off, and smell like a swamp.  I checked my surroundings for landmarks and started in the lower section hoping it would be downwind from anyone in the upper section.  The fence line from my past sector divided the area into two, and the flag on top of the observation tower became a long distance landmark to keep my eye on.

Down the hill we went as Grom’s tongue began turning in to a paddle shape and his flybys became more infrequent. Time for a break in the shade. Find out about doggie heat stroke in THIS post.

He drank some water from his red dog print doggie hamster style bottle and plopped down panting.  I began drawing my map on the blank mailing label affixed to the ziplock bag I was carrying the maps in.  While drawing my pretty little picture, I realized it would have been wise to record the distance of each leg of the grid I had made.  Doing so, I would be able to pinpoint exactly where I was at a later time.  Oops!  Grom looked unconcerned.

I restarted Grom with his search word since we had been resting for a while.  I did not want him to forget what he was doing here!  We rounded the stream and found the other side contained a field of tall, unmowed grass.  Grom bounded like a deer up in the air trying to catch scent above the thick grass.  I wanted to get out of this portion of the field as soon as possible before my puppy turns into boiled hotdog.  I kept testing the wind with my powder bottle inadvertently dusting my evaluator like a powdered donut. The would shift sometimes coming more from the west. I stuck with my search strategy because I did not want to chase the shifting winds all over the field.  Across the field and toward the red barn we romped.

search map grid

With my back to a barn I walked toward the flag lazily flapping in the breeze.  Grom was getting tired again, biting at grass stalks as he trotted by rather than speeding around like normal. There really wasn’t any shade in the area for him to enjoy.  I hurried to get him up under a tree for another break.  There, I decided to complete one more pass in the lower section.  We trekked up to the lake so G-man could stand in the cool water and bite at its surface for a bit.

My dog started to really perk up near the lake when we headed towards it.  Was he catching scent or just excited by the water and the smell of goose leavings?  I let Grom play around in the water for a bit and suggested that I would start sweeping the upper sector starting with checking the hedges and jumps on the Northeast side of the lake.  I was picked on by my evaluator by my obsession with checking all of the shrubbery in the area.  I watched Grom get really interested with the line of bushes near the water in a Southerly direction and decided to change my strategy.  He is interested in something and the wind is coming from a more southerly direction.  Let’s go that way first then come around and check the other side of the lake on the way back.

Trust the dog.

Down back towards the barn I went, then turning to go South.  Grom started to prance a bit and sticking his nose up in the air.  There was no where to hide out in front of us, what could he be smelling?  Maybe my subject is hidden in a depression or under a camo tarp?  I wrote on the map where Grom alerted to come back to later in case this turned out to be a swan or something and began to walk towards the dog.

search dog find map

This is when he took off in a straight line towards a lone tree about 150 meters away.

“He has it!”

I began walking in his general direction but made sure it was not quite straight to the tree.  His body language showed nothing but confidence as he returned to me.  I watched him run towards me out of the corner of my eye.   Grom bounded towards me, his mouth open ready to bark.  Nothing coming out.  Come on, dog!  If you don’t bark we fail.  He bounced next to me for a few more strides and began to snap at the air.   Then a series of nice loud barks ejected from his big mouth.  One bark, two, three, four, “SAVE!”  Grom went tearing back to the tree, stopped, looking back and waiting for me.  He came trotting back pleading for me to hurry my lazy, out of shape butt.  He kept trotting towards me, bounding with excitement, then bounding towards the tree, slowing and waiting.  Repeating.  Fifty meters from the tree he took off for the tree.  That is when I see her red toenails poking out her her sandle like an extra tree root. I hooked my bounding pup up telling him what a good boy he is.  I have no idea where my evaluator went.

“Are you Jutka?”  Are you ok?  Can you walk?  We have been looking for you!”

Grom got his nice tugging reward while I struggled with the map.

I looked at the maps with my evaluator, I was trying to figure out where I was.  On the topo map there was a large lake.  Oh well that is easy we must be… Wait, I don’t think that lake is where it should be on the map.  I started looking at other land features such as intersections of roads and the stream.  I flipped back and forth between the satellite image and the topographical map doubting nearly everything I see.  A dirt road running north of my sector could be on the property, or it could be another road on the neighboring cattle ranch.  If only I had asked the coordinates of base when I started or at least had figured that out in the beginning.  Doh!  I guessed where we were based on the intersection of roads and a lake on the topo map, but kept saying that I did not think it was right.  My evaluator teased me to hurry up and tell base I found someone.  I told him they could wait a few seconds.  He told me to think of the other teams mucking around in the swamp. I told him they can take it, it builds character.  He said he would remember that the next time he was on a search with me.  He would make sure he was my evaluator on my final evaluation.

Eating my words

search map lake

After giving the evaluator my guess, he gives me a few hints to help me correct it. I look again at the map and measure where the cars must have been parked and figured our distance from them using a grid square and my drawn map.  Good thing I wrote down SOME distances on the thing.  I called in to base and my evaluator says he will be waiting for me in the car.  I could let my dog play in the water while I drew my map.

Jutka threw a stick in the water for my non swimming puppy while I tried to figure which way was up.

My debriefing went well, and I passed.  Here is what I learned

  • Make sure to start searching at one end, not in the middle to make sure you do not create any unsearched areas.
  • It is ok to change your search pattern to favor the wind.
  • Call in to base as soon as you find someone, that way they can get things ready while you figure out where you are.
  • Start out with coordinates of many features to better understand your map, Draw ON your map to clarify things such as missing lakes.
  • Don’t automatically believe what is on your map. It turns out there were two lakes, one on the map, and one that wasn’t.  I would have figured that out if I had used my noggin while comparing the satellite image with the topo.
  • Write the distance of your search legs or your pace count.  I should have simply written down what my hand held clicker said on my map and did the math later.

light brush test

Posted in dog training, life with a working dog, pets, Rescue Training, Search and Rescue with tags , , , , , , , on May 17, 2011 by demigorge

After the trail test I was speaking to an operational handler  and

they told me that after the trail test, it was all about testing the handler.

That combined with our little adventure in looking for terrain features where he didn’t indicate the first time, made me sweat a little as I drove to our early morning light brush test.  I spent the whole drive thinking about the lessons I’d learned in the first couple of test. Knowing that I would make some kind of mistake, but hoping that it would at least be a new and different mistake.

First things first

Once we’d arrived at the area for the test, I stopped the car and let him get a little tree time in while I put on my gaiters and sprayed on a layer of tick armor. The blood suckers get thick early in Virginia and I’ve had one round with the lyme bacteria that I didn’t enjoy even a little bit.. After I was suited up and we both had our game faces firmly in place, we got back in the car and went to meet our evaluator. He was waiting patiently looking at his map.

Getting out of the car I took my coffee, my map tools, my note book, and a donut so we could start the briefing. It was a pretty standard brief, a little over 40  acres bounded by a road and a trail with a 200 meter undefined  boundary that would be easy to hit on either side, assuming that I could read the terrain correctly. I was getting pretty used to the standard questions: age, condition, mental state, physical characteristics, and equipment he might have on him.  I wasn’t quite ready for his name though. This was to be the search for Renaldo.

I put my search strategy together, deciding that since he was a hiker, and had gone out on an evening hike, we should start with the trail and we could cut our undefined boundary when we got to a certain land mark on the trail. That would put us in High Probability land. My evaluator carefully considered my reasons, and said that given the circumstances it was a good plan. Reading the look on his face I asked, ” you’re not going to let me do that are you?” A small smile crept across his face and he slowly shook his head, “….no.” Which puts us into Plan B .Run up the road until I get to my undefined and start my grid pattern there.

And we’re off.

Marching up the road there wasn’t any traffic on it so we walked the road a little bit, but I decided that walking just inside the boundary line would keep Grom up on his side of the road and out of any traffic the might come down. I counted off my paces and set my bearing on what would be my east-west grid lines so we could start our little trek through the brush. This pushed us through some brush and across a little ridge before we hit a stream that we would be crossing in the middle of our sector on every pass. This would be good since the dog would have a chance to get in the water and cool off at least once a pass.

All was going well, my bearing was drifting a little but I figured I was correcting for it and the stream came up where expected. The brush was indeed light so I was calling my imaginary boundary flags a little on the long side. Imagine my surprise when I came up on the trail and found myself about 20 meters further down the trail than I thought I would be.

I gathered my wits and corrected my position, making sure my bearing was correct I saw my evaluator/escort checking his compass so I took a peek at his needle. When he moved to cover his compass I asked if North was a secret to the test and hoped that I didn’t loose too many points for being saucy.  The compasses agreed and I resolved to trust my compass so we set off on the original bearing which didn’t feel anything like what I thought it would.

We would cut another two lines through the sector with Grom running off deeper into the sector like he had something, only to come back either wondering why we were so slow or with a look on his face like “I thought I smelled something, but…um…never mind”.

At about 40 minutes I took a look at him while we stopped next to the stream. He was getting warmer and running a little slower so I let him play in the stream while I checked my map and made some notes. He actually stayed in a down for about 5 minutes and rested while I got to say my favorite phrase.

“base this is Team Grom….”

A quick check of my bearing and a restart later we were back looking for Renaldo the errant hiker.

After another trip up one side of the hill and down another, Grom gets the look and I check the wind for the hundredth time that morning. My evaluator steals a look at his GPS and looks thoughtfully at the dog who has come back to me with the, “I was sure I there was something out there….” look but he hasn’t put it all together yet.

On the next pass we enter a little flat and I see the dog run up to a stump with the most excitement I’ve seen out of him all day long. He does his best impression of a cat trying to get up to the top of the stump but then decides he’s still a dog and turns in little circles at the base. Clearly I’m needed there and I make a hasty move over to the stump and proclaim loudly, “This looks like a clue!”

Remembering our last encounter with a clue of this size, I start talking as fast as I can. “I’m going to mark this and take my dog out to run a circle around the perimeter. I can come ba…..” The dog is charging up the next hill and my word fall short when I see him dive behind a tree and come screaming back to me. Since I’m still standing next to clue, I flash back to our last training and hoping the lack of indication was the exception and not  a new problem to solve and when he gets to me my heart stops beating for a second.

Grom has stopped directly in front of me and gives me a look in the eye before glancing back at the tree…. And I wait. But before I can start thinking about how I’m going to fix his indication he starts barking like a little maniac. Two, three, four, five… GO PLAY!

By the time I have managed to get to Renaldo, Grom has been in twice and returned to bark at me again. Such a good dog. This is where a huge puppy party happens and I find out that my subject has been text messaging my wife the whole time and everyone on facebook now knows that Renaldo will be home safe soon.

Once we get back to the vehicles, and Grom takes off his uniform, I sit down with my Evaluator to go over the debriefing. My map is drawn, with the help of my colored markers, because if you have to draw a map, it might as well be pretty. I get a look at the track on the GPS, which I haven’t been allowed to use any of the tests, and I was indeed off the first pass on my undefined, but got it corrected on my second pass. I asked a couple of questions and waited for the constructive criticism that always comes at the end. My evaluator looks at his note book, folds it up and says,

“well…. that’s all I have.”

Three more to go.

Get A Clue On the Light Brush Practice

Posted in dog training, pets, Rescue Training, Search and Rescue with tags , , , , on May 10, 2011 by rattlerjen

Let’s talk

Grom and I are doing a dry run of our light brush assessment.

(Dig back to the previous post on how things were going so far.)

We take a right turn and shoot straight up the drainage to the stream, all the while I’m telling my operational handler/coach/escort that I’d be marking my boundry here and here and on the corner I’d put two flags out. Grom has a more singular purpose today, someone is out here with his toy and he will find them. Needless to say he pays no attention to boundaries, or flags, or our pretend test. He shoots in and out of drainages, and up logs on the off chance his toy has been stolen by a beaver or a woodpecker.

Even with the fake testing, it’s a low pressure day, and all is going pretty well. I’m letting him work and making sure that his focus is on the job. We work down the stream to the next drainage and back south to the road where we go back the way we came and dive back into the woods going north. The intention is to let him work for at least 45 minutes, so I’m concentrating keeping us to The Plan. So after  a couple of passes I’m thinking about my subject and which bush she might be in. I’m also yammering away about what I would be doing on a real search and as we walk along one of the ridges I see him follow his nose down into the drainage and circle a couple of times. Then he reaches into his bag of tricks and does his best cat imitation by trying to climb a tree.

It’s a bird, it’s a plane….

Actually it’s a jacket. My walker watched him try to climb this tree and asks out loud, mostly to herself I’m sure, “is she up a tree?”  To which the reply was, “no, I’d never do that. ”  Now there’s something you need to understand, we don’t get sarcasm where I’m from so I’m not completely convinced by that answer. My response is to wait, hoping that if she is indeed up that tree, he will return to me and indicate. We were very careful to make sure that Grom was exposed to and would indicate on people that had climbed things like trees. (We were also careful to make sure that he would indicate to us if we happened to be up a tree….. It was a long winter.)

He’s not coming back to indicate, but he is really interested in what ever is down there. Normally, I would be talking the situation out in my head trying to figure out what to do next. That’s exactly what I did on my trail test and it got me a boot full of mud so this time I do it out loud and my faux evaluator and I have a little talk about the right process and steps to follow before we get our wander on, down to the tree Grom is still circling.

In the tree, I find the jacket and exclaim “A HA! A Clue!” which turns into a long conversation about how to mark clues in the woods, on the maps, and what gets radioed into base. We talk about the difference between how dog handlers mark clues and sign cutters would mark it. What you would do if you were on a walking team comes up and we dissect the nuance between a well marked clue and just wasting flagging.

Meanwhile my dog is running up and down hills, through bushes and over logs. But he sees that we are clearly not as excited as he is about the jacket. I’m certain he felt like we spent 2 hours talking about the jacket, and we’re not throwing a party so he calms down a little bit. This is when I hear my subject calling over the radio, telling me that not only has my dog been into see her, but he’s done it twice.

My heart is in my throat. This is a day of firsts for Grom, he’s never found a clue this big. Such a big thing even a handler should be able to smell it. And he’s never gone into a subject twice and not indicated. I have visions of going all the way back and doing nothing but indication work with him for months. Working long problems and testing would have to wait for cooler weather in the fall.  But I have to fix this situation first.

Any time you find a clue, it calls for the search of the area immediately around the clue. This means I have to pull Grom out to circle about 25 to 30 meters around the clue, but since we’re just not excited right now I decide to we’re going to walk out 25 and restart him to begin our loop around the clue.

The restart hardly seemed needed because as soon as I let him go he crashed through the bushes and returned to give me his indication without getting any prompts or guidance. I did make him bark a couple of extra times before I let him go play though. Hopefully when it comes to his light brush test he will remember the part of this day where he indicated and got jackpot play, and not the part where he found her and I just yapped.

So it was a day of lessons for me.  I’m certain that finding a clue that was so “oh my god” big threw him off for a minute.  I’m absolutely certain that if I’d dropped everything else and immediately started to circle around the clue, he would have indicated the first time. In short, There is a time for talking, and then there is a time for being just as excited as your dog and running around in circles.

Trial by Trail

Posted in dog training, life with a working dog, pets, Rescue Training, Search and Rescue with tags , , , , , , on April 26, 2011 by demigorge

The second in our string of tests is the Trail test.

Where the open field is really a chance to see if the canine will work, how the canine will work, and if they do it with their nose; the trail problem gives the evaluator a better feel for how the handler and canine work as a team. There’s distractions in the woods that you don’t get with the open field, so there’s some time spent asking yourself

“what’s that smell?”

More on that later.

Back in college I remember being at the bar one night with some friends when one of them came up to me and said

“You better leave money on the table because Scott’s Ex just walked in and things are about to happen very quickly.”

This is exactly how we walk into a search.

Once you’re there, things happen quickly, so if there’s anything you need to take care of, it needs to happen before you get your task. With this in mind, I stopped before we got to the meeting place and let Grom take care of his personal business while I checked my pack, put batteries in my flashlight and put my gaiters on. Once I was sure we had everything in order he went back into the crate and we drove to the meeting place.

When we get to the meeting place, I see my evaluator/escort sitting at a picnic table just waiting for me.

The scenario for this test was not unlike the first test in that I ask a lot of questions that have answers like “we don’t know.” and “that’s a very good question.” But my task is pretty simple.  This is to be a “Hasty Trail” task, which means that speed takes precedence. The trail is about a mile and a half long and we’re responsible for covering the trail and 100 feet off of either side.

Armed with as much information as I’m going to get out of my bemused evaluator; I look at the map to get an impression of what I think the wind will be doing on the trail given the topography and time of day and weather. The only real search strategy I can make up on my own is knowing where I’m at while I’m there and what the wind is going to do at any given point on the trail.

“Base, this is Team Grom…..”

At the head of the trail I take his lead off and we get our game faces on. Staring down this trail I know that it’s going to be at least a mile down there before things get interesting and when I let him go he’s 100 feet down the trail before I have the lead around my neck, he’s such a good dog.

This is Grom’s second test, and we run problems like this quite often so he’s got a lot of practice.  I watch the dog, watch the clock, and check the wind. Plus I’m looking for clues on my own.  Within the first quarter mile, we come to a little bridge that goes over a small fresh water stream where Grom has decided something interesting has happened.

He as gone down into the creek bed and doesn’t seem to show any interest in the fact that I’m getting ready to walk away. I take this as a hint, wander down to where he’s standing beside some fallen trees and take a look around at the small pool and large mud puddle only to find…..nothing. This is where I start to ask myself “what’s that smell?” except only the dog can smell it and he’s not sharing, so I talk myself into thinking that he’s into a critter smell.

I would later discover that this is the first of two clues that I almost walk almost directly on and completely fail to see. Luckily it’s not my nose that’s being tested.

So it’s back down the trail for the three of us,

Grom leading the way and at least 100 feet on either side because he’s showing off how fast and far he can run. But this is the part of the game he loves, and I let him take as much space and time as he wants while still keeping up a decent pace. It’s been 30 minutes and it’s time for a radio check. I put on my navigation hat and tell my evaluator where I think we are based on the streams and the trails and the topography. As I’m giving him my Best Guess, I see his eyes flash over my shoulders two or three times and when I’m done with my speech I turn around and see the trail sign behind me and say

“or I could just read the sign and tell base what it says on there…..”

At least I get a laugh from him.  I take a minute to make sure that Grom is not over heating and has a drink of water, which he’s getting plenty of out of the stream.

The rest of trail covers the stream bank .

Grom loves to run through the water. I’m happy to see him working the stream and investigating places that I can’t see. He’s a dog in his element, running the banks, looking in bushes, and going down beaver slides like he’s got a flat tail. The first quarter mile of this has pretty steep hills going to the stream so I’m pretty sure he’s going to catch what ever scent is up hill and I let him run it. He finds a nice stand of thickets on the banks and disappears into it .I can’t see him at all but I know he’s working something. I look to my evaluator for some kind of hidden signal and all he says is “maddening isn’t it?”

After a couple minutes I decide he’s either not into the subject or we’re just going to have to come back to it and see if Sally, my lost biker is actually in there. We mark the area with some flagging tape and press on down the trail.

This is where the topography starts to flatten out  on the side away from the stream and I’m seeing lots of fallen trees and flat places that would be perfect to lay in hiding. But Grom is still working the stream and the bank. I’m starting to get frustrated because my pace count beads are telling me that we’re into the area of the trail were things should be getting interesting. I’m staring into bushes hoping to find one of my two clues. I’m checking into places where I see Grom showing interest. I’m checking the wind. Mostly though,

I’m thinking that I’m going to miss the subject because my partner is playing in the water.

So I call Grom up on to the bank where we can do another call out and I can restart him. This has always given him a little extra motivation and seems to focus him. And it does exactly that– he dives directly back into the stream bed and runs along the sand bar in the middle of the stream. I just keep turning around and looking into the nice wide flats with lots of trees that I’m certain contain my subject. It’s been a quarter mile since we got into this terrain and I’m starting to do the time calculations on how long it’s going to take to cover this on the way back once we turn around at the end of the assigned amount of trail, something that’s not only allowed, but is actually the prescribed way you work a trail if you haven’t found anything.

That’s when I see him shoot out of the stream bed with his ears high and his tail straight.

I am beyond talking this out with my evaluator at this moment because Grom has spent the past half mile messing around in the water and I don’t want to turn around empty handed. So I have a brief problem solving session with myself. ” He’s into something, but he’s so distracted by the water he’s not focusing on it. I need to point him up hill and restart him.”

Trust your dog, and try not to embarrass him.

Set on my plan I call him back to me, and like a good dog he listens to me and comes back, but hesitantly. I do a call out , point him in the direction I know she’s laying, and give him the sign to get to work.  The next part happens very fast. He takes two steps in the direction I pointed him and then makes a sharp right and dives back down the bank and across a sand bar. I make the mental note to teach him the difference between right and left and decide we’re going to have to hit the flats on the way back so I just start walking down the trail.  I see him stopped behind a fallen tree laying down in the middle of the stream, staring at


Then that something moves and he sticks his nose into it and bolts back up across the nice dry sand bar and up the bank to stand right in front of me. That’s when he gives me the three barks I’ve been waiting for the whole hike. It’s like he’s yelling in my face,


As he’s taking me to her, he leads me through a giant puddle of mud that he clears in one bound, and I sink up to my knee in.

As I throw the toy to my subject so she can give Grom his play reward I can feel the mud squishing into my boot under the gaiter. My subject looks at me and says

“That’s what you get for not listening to your dog the first time.”

-Editor's note:  Yes, they passed.
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