Archive for training a search dog

Save a Hero’s Life

Posted in dog, life with a working dog, pets with tags , , on October 11, 2013 by rattlerjen

This dog can do anything!


Help him work again

Pyro is a dog on my Search and Rescue team that does it all.  He can climb anything, find anything, do pretty much anything. Right now he is need of some help.  For some unknown reason, he has developed an infection that is costing his wonderful handler a bit of cash and a ton of heartache.  She will do anything for this dog, and this dog will do anything for her. HIs handler/owner is broken to pieces over this boy and she will not give up.

Every tiny bit helps

Long time readers know I do not post about charities on this site. This dog is special. If you can only give a dollar, go for it. Nothing is too small.  If you cannot give a dime, spread this post around. Maybe someone you know can give something. Pyro has done so much to help humans. We can do something to help him. Find his story and Donate now at the link below.


Donate now through Go Fund Me

Working on the Road

Posted in dog training, pets with tags , , on September 11, 2012 by rattlerjen

Have you ever taken your search dog on vacation with you?

Well, the last three weeks Grom came out with us on a family vacation.  Our challenge: How to keep his search training keen while on the go?


Field Cones (as targets for directionals)

50 Foot Leash


Search Toys

Agitation Harness

Safety First

Traveling with your dog can send you to unknown territories.  Be aware that laws are different from place to place.  People may be unfamiliar with search and rescue dogs and may treat you differently than you are used to in your own town.  Remember to err on the side of caution and be professional and respectful of local laws.  Be a good ambassador and strive to keep the good name of K9 Search and Rescue.

That said, traveling will bring you to many rest areas perfect for working on some search and rescue skills. “EEK!” you say.  Rest areas are next to busy highways, are small, and are filled with people on dogs.  What in the world am I suggesting? Put your pup on a 50 foot leash and use the green space to work on directionals, obedience, agitation, or indication work.


1. Start over

You are in a new place with lots of new smells and distractions.  Set your dog up for success by going back to basics.  Here I am showing my dog his first target I will send him to during a directionals exercise.

2. Make it easy and fun

Here grom is running to his first target. Go Grom, go!

3. Reward

Grom is having a great time at this rest stop.  He gets a reward for hitting his first target.  Catch that frisbee!

What the pup gets out of travel

We have found by exposing our dog to new areas and smells, he has become a much more confident dog out in the field.  He learns much by simply going on nice long walks, experiencing new things, and checking the world out. I am already dreaming of a camping trip out west with the dog next year.

Catching Scent

Posted in dog training, Search and Rescue with tags , , , on August 7, 2012 by rattlerjen

Can you spot when your dog catches scent?

Or are you spending all of your time doing other things?

I spend quite a bit of my time crawling over slippery wet logs, bursting through thick brush, and trying to avoid stepping in treacherous holes.  As a clumbsy girl who had eight head injuries before I was eight years old, this is a challenge. A search and rescue dog handler must be able to multitask a plethora of different activities.

I must:

  • monitor communications over the radio
  • keep track of time and check into base periodically
  • constantly note exactly where I am on a topographical map
  • keep my eyes peeled for clues
  • keep notes
  • watch my team members who are walking with me
  • test the wind
  • analyse weather and land for scent conditions
  • look for the subject
  • watch my footing
  • navigate by sight with my compass and land marks
  • monitor health of my dog and group
  • think of evacuation routes as I go

but, The most important is:

Watching my dog

This list could be expanded with many more things, but I figured you were sick of reading it.

Your dog is the nose of the operation, you are the brains.  If you miss your dog alerting or catching scent, you could walk right past the missing person.  Scent conditions are complicated and can change on a whim.  Your dog could lose scent at any time. It is your job to figure out what the scent might be doing and direct your dog so he may best find  the person.

I have seen my dog catch scent and lose it in less than a minute.  If I did not stop, think, test the wind, and move my dog into a better place to catch the scent again, my subject may not have been found.

Each dog alerts differently (one of the reasons we cannot work each other’s dogs as an operational team unless we go through all the tests with them and certify with them.)  We can only recognize when the dog catches scent through experience and time with that particular dog.

I use my ears and eyes when I am tracking what my dog is doing.  So even when I have my eyes on something else, I have learned to hear when my dog has changed his behavior.

Can you catch the instant that this search dog catches scent as the handler is scrambling over the giant log?


Trust your Dog

First Find Anniversary

Posted in pets, Search and Rescue with tags , on July 17, 2012 by rattlerjen

– Aaron Pennington

It’s been exactly a year since Groms first search- and his first find.

In the year since Grom and I certified, we’ve had a lot of work, and we’ve had a lot of tasks. But most of all, we’ve learned a lot about working together. These are the three biggest lessons that I’ve learned from working Grom for a year as a certified Search dog.

Always know where the wind is coming from and where it’s going.

Grom and I can work all day long, but if I never put him in the correct spot he will never make any kind of progress. He understands what his nose tells him right now, but he doesn’t have any concept of what the weather will be or what it was. There’s important information in both the past and the future, and it’s my job to make sure that he get the benefit of that information even if he doesn’t know it.

There’s a also huge benefit in knowing where to not go, and when to get out of the way. There’s very little as frustrating as getting stuck out in the field in a dangerous thunderstorm or snow storm– especially when you should have seen it coming.

Have fun while you work.

I know the whole point of having a dog from a working line is that they have the need, the desire, and the will to work. But the thing that amazes me more than anything is how much fun Grom has while working. You will never see him quite as happy, or fulfilled as you do when he’s working on a problem, especially a difficult one. Quick run-away type problems bore him after a few repetitions and short linear tasks are only good to whet his appetite.

No, the most fun you’ll ever see him have is on a hard problem where he has to plug his brain in and work out a scent pattern all on his own. He will charge in and out of scent, climb trees, crawl through culverts, and completely ignore his handler when he thinks he has the right answer at the tip of his nose. He loves the tug that comes with success, but to see him devote all of himself to a problem it so see him truly alive and at his best.

Trust your dog

I know when Grom is trying to tell me something. But I don’t always know what he’s trying to tell me.

Sometimes it’s something  important like “here’s the person you’re looking for.” or it could be something only important to him like “Check out the dead thing that I found to roll in!” To him there’s no difference, so my job becomes to figure out how much of what he’s telling me is important to the job and how much is just important to him.

So what’s the lesson here?

If it’s important to him, it’s important to me. Because sometimes he knows things are important, but he doesn’t know WHY it’s important. Once you figure out that, it becomes much easier to not second guess what the dog is thinking is important. When that becomes the case, you realize that you just go check out the what ever it is that he’s telling you to go check out.

It could be a clue, or exactly who you were looking for.

Teaching Directionals to a Search Dog

Posted in dog training, pets, Search and Rescue with tags , on May 11, 2012 by rattlerjen

Search and rescue dogs are excellent both for their exceptional sense of smell and for their ability to search places humans cannot. Handlers train their dogs to take commands on where to go from afar.  These are called:


Watch the video on how this is done from step one.


  • Targets – Giant wooden cable spools, wash tubs, or anything large enough for the dog to comfortably jump on.
  • Treats
  • Toys
  • Helper

I like to use targets that are portable so I may practice directionals anywhere.  I love the large metal wash tubs you can find at hardware stores.  You helper should be someone who knows how to properly reward your dog.

Step One

Start with only one target and lure the dog up on it with some treats or a toy in your hand. I like to have my dog sit once he has reached the target to prevent him from jumping off right away. You may use the command “Far” as you are leading him to the target, “Hup” right before luring him to jump on the target, and “Sit” once on the target.

With a Helper

The whole idea is to get your dog to go somewhere on his own.  Once he is reliably jumping up on the target, you are going to need some help.  While doing this on your own is possible, having a helper will really speed things up.You stay in one place and hold the dog if necessary while a Helper taps a toy or his hand with a treat on top of the target.  You give the “far” command and release the dog. Your helper may lure the dog up if necessary, but you give all of the commands.

Next, the helper taps the toy on the target and stands a couple of steps away from the target. Practice this until your dog runs and jumps reliably.

On your Own

Now simply give the dog the commands all by yourself.  Try to throw the dog’s toy past the target or slightly to either side.  (I still need practice at this)  It will prevent your dog from anticipating the reward and jumping off the target to come towards you.

Practice only ONE direction at a time

Do this until he can do it nearly 100% of the time.  Increase the distance a bit.  Then, go to different locations to practice.  Remember to start back at the original distance every time you go somewhere new!

Add Farther

You may now add another target beyond the first one and ask for a farther command.

It is best to have a handler repeat the tapping on the first target, wait for you to command the dog up on the first target, then quietly move to the second target.  You remain standing in one place!  Your helper taps the toy on the further target and you command the dog with a farther command.  If he keeps jumping off you need to restart him or put him back up on the first target yourself before returning to your original position.

I want my dog to go out to a left or right target. How do I do this?

First, always ask your dog to go FAR or away from you, THEN ask for a left or right.

Why? Your dog needs the ability to pick a path up a treacherous rubble pile on his own. So, it does not matter if he goes diagonally left, right, or straight away from you on a far command.  Once he has gone away from you, THEN you can give him a Left or Right command.

All of the targets above are FAR.

Teaching Left and Right

Line three targets up in a row.  First, ask your dog to go far.  Then, walk around the targets so that from YOUR perspective there is a target to your dog’s Right.

Have a Helper tap on the target to your dog’s right and command your dog with a giant step to the  right a hand gesture to the right, and the word “Right.”

Teach only one direction at a time.  If your dog has gone to an end target with no more targets to the right, simply walk to the opposite side of the targets and Wallah! you now have targets to the right again.

Remember this is from the Handler’s perspective.

Do not move on to teaching “Left” until your dog can do “Right” reliably.

The Real World


If you have portable targets you can practice directionals anywhere.  You can even practice on other targets such as benches, furniture, boulders, picnic tables …. The possibilities are endless.  Just remember to move yourself in respective to a line of targets and you can teach any direction possible.

How to Keep Track of your Dogs Progress

Posted in Dog diary, dog training with tags , , , on April 12, 2012 by rattlerjen

It’s very important to log your dog’s training

Keeping track of how your dog is progressing is an invaluable tool for both yourself and your mentors.  Often a problem is the cumulative effect of several trainings and may only come to light if it is written down.  There are many ways a handler may track training.  Here are the many I have used.

Paper Logs

They are portable and easy to use. All you need is the log and a pen.


The simplest is an inexpensive lined journal.  Simply write all that happened during each training session.


  • Easy to use
  • portable
  • unformatted – freedom to write anything


  • subject to weather
  • unformatted – hard to track progress and find what is important in the text
  • difficult to remember what is important to write down
  • difficult to share with others
  • bad handwriting
  • cannot be backed up easily

Formatted Log Forms

You can use any word processor to create a training form.  Simply print them out, punch holes in them, and put in a binder.  Concentrate on making the important information easy to see at a glance using check boxes and the like.


  • Easy to scan for important information
  • Standardized – use one form for the whole team
  • limits amount of room for long notes

Drive Log

These are most useful with younger dogs, although I still work on drive with my operational dog. Notice how you have the ability to see the important information.

Search Logs

Everything you need to keep track of is easy to see with a form like this.  Remember to KISS (Keep it Simple Stupid!) Make things easy on the eye and simple to scan for information quickly.  The idea here is to see patterns and catch problems.

On the reverse side, I write down information to help me remember exactly what happened so I may easily recall that day’s particulars.  These logs were written nearly two years ago, but my unique comments bring back the memory in full.

Categories to include are:

  • Details of the search exercise.  Explain how the problem was set up and exactly what the dog did.
  • Comments from your mentor or team mates – they will see things you do not.  Dog problems are typically caused by things the handler does.  Many times you do things without realizing it!
  • Comments from the handler – What did you see?
  • Things to work on – What advice did others give you? How are you going to set up the training next time?

Now, just remember to bring your logs to EVERY training.

Computer Logs

Smart phones and ipads and tablets have enabled us to bring documents with us everywhere.  They also allow us to share that information to our home computer and others with a press of a button.


  • infinitely changeable
  • can be backed up
  • shareable
  • ability to link videos and images
  • searchable
  • date stamped
  • don’t have to worry about bad handwriting


  • not as easy to use in the field
  • needs a full battery
  • not as easy to standardize – everyone has a different device to use
  • cannot be used by all devices – cross platform concerns (iphones use different software from androids and pcs)
  • privacy concerns
  • must REMEMBER to back up to multiple devices

Since I have my phone with me everywhere and have found videos from that days training may be shot to accompany my day’s log, I have switched to computer logs. I have seen trainers use everything from word processors to excel.

An excellent program available on most all platforms is Evernote.  It is accessible anywhere and can have anything from forms, documents, videos, web links, photos, and more embedded in each note.  I have moved nearly everything to this.

Evernote backs everything up from my phone to the “cloud.”  It is password protected, I may access it with any device, and may share each individual note with anyone through a variety of ways.

evernote for k9 search and rescue logs

My only complaint is I must learn to create a template to use for training logs, otherwise they become as difficult to read as a personal diary. I simply made a template copying the paper training logs above.  Instead of circling each option, I highlight the word and set the computer to underline it.


  • infinitely sharable
  • works on all platforms
  • can embed videos, documents, web links, videos, diagrams, drawings, and nearly anything else within each note
  • automatically backs up
  • easily organized with keywords, tags, and notebooks (folders)
  • searchable
  • date stamped – can be searched this way too
  • password protected


  • unformatted – must either learn to create a template for easy scanning of information
  • small learning curve
  • not as fast as writing with a pen and paper
  • careful what you share


Sure, why not use a blog to track your training!  I use the blog along with other apps to track my progress.  THIS blog to be exact.  If you visit the early days of this blog, you will see how.  Since my blog is public, it forces me to really consider what I am writing.  Of course, I link each blog posting to each corresponding personal log in evernote so I may write freely there.

I would write my training in a paper journal each day, then would use that to write each blog post.  This would force me to read and think about what I wrote each day.  It unfortunately caused me to edit out information that needed to be kept out of public eye. (such as choice words used when he ate my new sneakers)

Remember, you are a first responder and your public postings could be used in court.  Think about what information you are sharing before putting it in electronic form!

No matter what you use

to keep track of your training.  Be sure it is easy for you to use.


Remember to use it


What do YOU use to track your dogs progress?

How Scent and Airflow Works

Posted in pets, Search and Rescue with tags on February 22, 2012 by rattlerjen

How do those dogs find missing people?

Remember PigPen from Charlie Brown?  He always appeared to have clouds of dust coming off of him wherever he went.  This is not far from the truth.

You have thousands of tiny pieces of your body leaving you every minute; 40,000 pieces to be exact.  These tiny cornflake like bits are called rafts.

They are made up of skin cells, hygiene products, bacteria, fungus, parasites, sweat, hormones, and enzymes. They are unique to each individual human.  Even skin rafts from identical twins are different.  These are what dogs smell.

Some skin rafts are lighter in air, easily carried by air currents.  Others are heavier than air,  alighting on vegetation or falling to the ground.

Dog Handlers pay attention to air currents.

Skin rafts are carried along currents of air like millions of fluffy dandelion seeds.

We pay attention to physics.  Warm Air rises

and Cool air sinks.  Cold and moisture make air heavier. Your skin rafts first leave your body at about 2mph up in the air traveling along the current of air your 98.6 degree F produces.

Without any air movement

scent diffuses evenly


But of course, there is always something making air move.

When things are perfect, scent moves predictably like this:

Laminar Flow

Objects and other factors often cause air to move like this:

Turbulent Air Flow

Turbulent air flow causes handlers and their canines to mutter choice words under their breaths.

Different Types of Airflow

Normal Daytime Air

When the ground heats up during the day time, air begins to rise.

Normal Nighttime Air

When the ground begins to cool, air cools and begins to fall. It flows downhill like water.

Coning Plumes

    • movement of scent from subject downwind in the shape of a cone
    • during cloud covered days or nights
    • travels long distances
    • ideal for dogs

A dog will run perpendicular to the flow of the scent crossing in and out of the scent cone zeroing in to its source.

Fumigating Scent

    • occurs in the morning before sunup
    • scents travel down valleys like water
    • subjects on a hill can be detected by dog down below
    • It is good to get dogs out before sunrise

Lofting Scent

    • Occurs after sun sets
    • The ground is cooling but aloft air is still warm
    • usually occurs in valleys first then other areas later on
    • Work dogs on the high ground in the evening

Fanning Plumes

    • at night in stable air
    • scent holds at the same elevation level without falling or rising
    • dog may alert across a drainage or canyon at the same level, but can’t find a person
    • Be sure to report your alerts as scent can carry

Pooling Scent

    • collects in an area like a pool of water
    • usually occurs in a low area
    • Occurs where there is little dispersal of scent by the wind
    • It hard for dog to follow a scent pool to the subject

Eddying Scent

    • circular air forms behind an object (turbulence)
    • prevents scent from traveling along prevailing wind
    • example: eddies form at a line of trees next to an open field

Looping Plumes

    • Occurs in clear sky or with high clouds
    • Occurs at midday, a high convection situation
    • scent rises, cools, falls, heats up, rises, cools, falls, etc.
    • Dog will alert by putting his head up, but will lose the scent.

Chimney Effect

    • Happens when air currents move straight up an object
    • alerts may occur nearby   -but-
    • scent may come down as much as several hundred meters away from the subject
    • This makes it nearly impossible for the dog to find the subject
    • You should check around tall objects in the area


    • caused by significant temperature and humidity differences in short distances
    • changes in elevation
    • drastic changes in shade and sunny spots
    • creates a wall like barrier of scent

Handlers use their knowledge to help the dog find the subject

You are the brains.  Your dog is the nose.

A search dog team will prefer to search into the wind, often zigzagging into the wind on small areas. A canine team can also perform searches along parallel sweeps perpendicular to the wind in larger areas. Remember to search ridges when air is likely to be rising and down in drainages when air is likely to be falling.

Good Luck

A good book to read on the subject is:

Scent and the Scenting Dog by William G Syrotuck

Site note:

Hatch Graham’s 1979 Article on Convectional Turbulence and the Airscenting Dog

Random Pictures of 2011

Posted in pets, Search and Rescue with tags , on January 26, 2012 by rattlerjen

A few of my team mates sent me photos of me from last year.  Just for fun, I thought I would share some of them with you.

I have been found by K9 Atticus!  I thought hiding on a ledge above a door would do the trick.

K9 Juno gets some play and a few pats

Planning our route during a mock search

Carrying the litter out to some poor, perfectly healthy and mobile sap who was suckered into going for a joy ride.

Going for a drag courtesy of K9 Topas

Grom on Voice of America

Posted in pets, Search and Rescue with tags , on November 17, 2011 by rattlerjen

In case you had missed it, Grom and our team was featured on a Voice of America Video.  They did a fantastic job filming this one.
Virginia Search and Rescue Dogs on VOA

Mending the Search Dog’s Pudding Brain

Posted in dog training, pets, Search and Rescue with tags , , on October 20, 2011 by rattlerjen

Read previous posts to find out all the fun problems we have been having with our pup.

Grom has decided that finding a person several times before coming and telling me is a fun new game.

Once, he indicated then decided to sniff some deer bones instead of playing.  Sounds like the little guy either lost his mind or decided he was going to change the rules of the game.

First, we set up a “puppy problem” to help diagnose the issue and increase his confidence.

After the fun little puppy problem, it was time to run a real search problem.  Aaron hid under a machine out in a farm field for Grom to find.  Here is the end of that search.

It looks like Grom has his confidence back.

He went right up to Aaron and did the rest of his job perfectly. We were not convinced that his problems were completely solved, however.  Seeing something once is never proof.  Field problems are easy for Grom.  Would he fall apart if things were a bit tougher?

We consulted a few veteran trainers on our team for advice.

Here are a few tips we learned.

  1. Keep in good radio contact with your subject.  Have them call you when the dog finds them.
  2. If your dog finds someone and comes back to you and does not indicate, hook the dog up and put him back in the car.  Game over.  Show no emotion and do not get upset.
  3. Let the dog sit in the crate for a little while and try the same search problem later during training.  This works extra well if he can see other dogs working and playing from his crate.
  4. On his second try, cue the dog at every step.  Call him back as soon as he finds the person. Then, act really happy as he is running back to you. Next, give him the “tell me” command. Finally, give the “show me” command and excitedly run after your dog back to the subject.
  5. Have the subject encourage the dog as he is running to him and give the pup a great play session.
  6. End on this for the day.
  7. Your dog will have learned that not indicating means the fun is over.  Then he is reminded of all the things you want him to do on the next search problem and gets a big reward.
  8. For the next few training days, start with a very easy short problem and cue the dog on every step before doing any other search problems.

Ok, that is one good tool in our tool box.

Next we found out something we may have been doing wrong!

If you watch some of the videos from our previous you may have noticed a trend.

Did you catch it?

Grom will bark! bark! pause, bark?  Then he will bark with less enthusiasm.  What he may be doing is going from “drive” to “obedience.”  We have been asking him for a ton of barks on every single search.  While it is ok for us to ask for a ton of barks sometimes; it simply is not going to keep up his excitement if we ask him for a ton of barks ALL of the time.

The indication part of the game just is not paying out. Now we ask for only one to three barks most of the time and up it to six or more barks only occasionally.

A combination of “Game Over” and fewer barks has led to success!

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