Of all the places we train, my absolute favorite is an empty building. Whenever we work a new building site, I can’t help but imagine what it will be like to stand outside a partially collapsed structure in a real disaster, and be told by a police officer that someone’s trapped and that my dog Kinsey and I need to pinpoint their location. The thought is both thrilling and terrifying! You have to work your dog to effectively search the building, with the added pressure of knowing that if you make a mistake, it might cost someone their life.
Then I think about Kinsey and her safety. Is there glass on the floor that might cut her paws? Are there any live wires that could shock and kill her? Broken windows where she might jump out? Food or poison that might make her sick? When we train, we run through the building and check for hazards. What will it be like when someone is really trapped inside?
Besides all of the pressure and hazards, scent is different in a building. For one thing, it’s more intense. When our dogs search a rubble pile, human scent goes up and out, depending on the wind. It floats and flies and moves. When a person is trapped in a building scent moves too, but unless a window or a door is open, it slowly fills the room. (To help me visualize, I always think of smoke pouring off a fire. But, with live find the fire is a person, and the smoke is body odor.) So, the dogs have to learn how to pinpoint. Going into a room and barking everywhere isn’t helpful! Our dogs have to find the strongest source of scent and bark there. And the scent is much, much stronger than scent on a rubble pile, so they have to get used to the intensity.
About a month ago, my training team and I had access to an old police station in Redlands, California for a few weeks. The police station in Redlands had various hallways that led to multiple offices, storage rooms filled with discarded police paraphernalia and prison cells enclosed in glass with a single toilet. It was so big, that even after two half days working it I don’t think I saw every room!
That day I was able to work all of the problems blind. Meaning, I didn’t know where any of the victims were hidden. Our first time through the old police station, we did a hasty search. I let Kinsey take the lead, and we moved as quickly as possible through the search area. She will often locate victims this way. She’s got a good nose! But, to make sure we don’t miss anyone, I take her through a second time and give her more direction. We’ll start at one end of a hallway, and I point to each room so that Kinsey goes in and puts her paws everywhere. I check all the doors, open up closets, and move through big rooms with her. By doing this, we’re less likely to miss someone.
When you watch the video, you’ll see that Kinsey found the first victim on her own, as part of our hasty search. But, the second victim was a challenge! At one point, when she got frustrated by a pile of boxes blocking a hallway, she turned and barked at me. (I knew it was a frustration bark because she looked at me. A victim bark is focused on the scent source.) I had to give her more direction, moving her from room to room. Then, as we worked, she eventually caught scent. She looked up, and went on her hind legs, certain there was a person up high. I realized that human scent was pouring in from the vents! I moved her out of that room, and into the victim. There, in the dark, she was rewarded for her hard work with a game of tug.
My favorite search in the old police station was the second problem we ran that day. Kinsey and I did our hasty search first, and as we turned down a hallway toward the jail cells, she caught scent. That pile of boxes where she stopped and barked at me on our first search were no issue this time. She bounded over them! I had no doubt that this time someone was hidden inside the room. After a strong series of barks, I peeked in and saw Kinsey down low barking at a tiny hole I would not have found on my own. Out came the hose toy. Kinsey was spot on!
We learned a lot, and had so much fun! Thank you to the Redlands’ Fire Department for giving us access!