Saber: Working Dog Drop Out
One of the firefighters on my task force, Tim, has a nine-year-old Golden retriever named Nikko. Since we know how hard it is to find and train a good search dog, we started looking for Nikko’s replacement about three years ago. (It’s difficult to think about a time when we go to training and Nikko isn’t there. That’s the hardest thing about loving a dog. They don’t live long enough.)
The first dog Tim purchased and dropped off at my house was a five-month-old male Golden retriever he named Saber. Tim left Saber with me because there’s a difference between training a search dog and working one. I love to train dogs, always have. Tim likes to work dogs, and while he could learn to raise and train a search dog, it doesn’t interest him.
The first thing I tested was Saber’s toy drive. It was excellent. He would retrieve all day long. This is the number one thing we look for in a search dog because if they don’t care about the toy, they don’t care about finding a victim. Every time our dogs find a victim, they’re rewarded with a toy and a game of tug. If that’s not enough motivation, the dog can’t be a search dog.
On the negative side, I could tell Saber had spent most of his life up to that point in a crate. His feet had a funny loose look to them from lack of exercise, and he had little stamina. It was also obvious to me that he’d never been loose in a house or spent much time with people. He had no sense of boundaries. He would leap over the coffee table and slam into me when I sat on the couch. When friends came over, he peed on the floor. (That’s why my house is tiled!!) When I took him hiking, he stopped in fear and stared at group of guys playing basketball. Everything was new and terrifying. This is not at all what we look for in a search dog. We need confidence. If we go out on a deployment, the dog has to be willing to search in all kinds of scenarios. He cannot cower in fear.
Ever the optimist, I thought I could fix him. I took him everywhere. We went to Lowe’s, Home Depot, Pet Co, up to the mountains in the snow and hiking as often as I could. My friend that’s a full time dog trainer took him for a couple of weeks so he could meet new people. We sent him to hunt school for a month. That trainer kept Saber in her home, and took him to family functions so he could get used to kids. (Another huge fear. For whatever reason, kids made him cower and urinate.)
One thing we all worked on with Saber was getting into a plastic crate in the back of a car. He hated it. I tried everything! Feeding him, treating him, dragging him, yelling at him, praising him. At first, his aversion to the car was so intense that when I took him on hikes, we’d get within site of the parking lot and he would hide. The first time this happened, I had to get a toy and throw it for him to get him out from behind a tree. After that, I made sure he was leashed up before we were within sight of the parking lot. Eventually, he would jump into the back seat of my car as long as I didn’t use a crate. But even after months of practice, the only way I could get him into the plastic crate in the back of my car was if I leashed him up. Another concern for me, but one I thought would get better with time.
Of course, with the stress of learning how to become a search dog, hiding became his coping mechanism. I taught him to bark for the toy, and when I was in the tube he loved to bark at me. But, if someone else went in as a victim, he hid. He’d stuff himself behind a rock or find a hole. Clearly, he didn’t think much of searching for strangers. Another concern, and this one I didn’t see a way around. A search dog must be willing to look for, and bark at, people he doesn’t know.
When Saber was a year and a half, our head trainer said what we’d all been thinking. He doesn’t enjoy his job. And that’s the thing, if a dog doesn’t want to run up on the rubble and look for people, we can’t force him. Training a search dog is all about finding a dog that loves toys, has confidence and wants to work. If any of the three are missing, he/she can’t be a search dog. So, Tim started to look for a pet home.
With all of the work we put into him, Saber made incredible progress. If I had him at eight weeks, would it have been different? Would Saber have made it as a search dog? I can’t say. With any dog, personality is a combination of being raised correctly and genetics. Saber was on the edge, and with a lot of socialization right from the start I might’ve been able to turn him into a search dog. I’ll never know. It’s frustrating.
What happened to Saber?
When we have a working dog drop out, we sell the dog for between $1,000 to $2,000 depending on the breeding lines and level of training. I’m used to these prices, but I know for many people it is a breath-taking amount of money for a dog. We barely break even. Saber’s puppy price was $1,500, add to it vet bills and training costs and Tim had nearly $3,000 invested in the dog. He knew there was no way he would get that back. He also wanted to make sure Saber had the best home possible. The truth is we’re all suckers for dogs, and the thought of Saber going somewhere he wasn’t adored was unbearable.
Within a few days, Tim found a woman interested in Saber. He drove out so that she could meet him, and that week she called Tim back and asked if she could take him home on a trail basis. About a month later, she decided to keep him.
Saber ended up in the perfect home. She’s a dog trainer and a writer, and has spent countless hours working to help Saber with his fear issues. Every now and then I get updates from her. Last Halloween, to help him get over his fear of children, she had kids give him a dog treat when they stopped at her place for trick or treating.
With a pet, you can spend years working on fear issues and it’s no big deal. But, with a working dog there isn’t time. Because of the physical effort involved in searching, most dogs retire by about ten. So, we can’t work on fear issues until they’re five and then start search work. We have to find the right dog, and work as hard as we can to get him where he needs to be as soon as we can.
I’d like to tell you the next puppy was a winner, but he wasn’t. Being a live find search and rescue dog isn’t easy. To make it even more complicated, Tim insisted on a male Golden retriever. Talk about limiting the pool.
Up next…search dog drop out number two.