Training Search Dogs at the Riviera Hotel in Vegas
Before buildings are demolished firefighters and police officers are allowed to use them for training purposes. Lucky for me, the Riviera Hotel and Casino closed in May and because we trained with LVFD we had access to the hotel to train dogs.
Usually, when we search a building someone has to go through beforehand and run out the homeless. Afterwards, you need to shower because of the dirt, rat droppings, and unidentified substances. But, the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas was clean, the bathrooms functioned and the air conditioners were on. YEAH!
On the floors we searched there were desks, bookshelves, office chairs, mattresses, stacks of wedding pictures, furniture labeled with prices or NOT FOR SALE, and spray paint on the walls.
All of the furniture excited me (Training search dogs changes your perspective!) because we can move it to create unique search scenarios for the dogs. If a building is empty, we work through it quickly and it isn’t nearly as interesting. Besides, I love looking at things people leave behind.
Building searches are more of a challenge for dogs than rubble. Imagine scent pours off your body like smoke. On a rubble pile scent is diffuse. It comes out different cracks and is pushed by the wind. A dog will pick up human scent and head toward it. As the dog gets closer to the victim, the scent gets stronger. In a building the scent can be overpowering for a dog. It fills the room like a fog and travels through heating ducts or hits the ceiling and bounces off walls. So, a dog may become confused and struggle to pinpoint the location of the victim. It’s a new skill for the handler and the dog, and like any kind of training it takes a lot of repetition.
This was Rook’s third or fourth building search and for puppies we make the problems as straightforward as we can. We always start with an alert tube because it creates a clear scent picture. The wooden lid has a hole cut into it, so that’s where the scent escapes and where the dog is rewarded with the toy.
After we ran the tube, we set up other problems throughout the hotel. Because Rook is a puppy and doesn’t have much experience, I did my best to send him in a direct line to the victim.Of course, it doesn’t always work because it’s a dog, and he has his own mind. As he gets more experienced, I will widen the search area. I’ll start from the doorway, then the hallway, and let him take the lead.
In one of the problems the victims hid behind a cracked door in what used to be a beauty parlor. Rook smelled him, stuck his head in the door, saw him and continued searching. Why, you might ask? He’s so conditioned to bark at people he can smell but not see that he didn’t understand he was supposed to bark. I had the victim call out to Rook and show him a toy. It clicked, and Rook ran back and barked. Maybe not next time, but soon, Rook will remember that it’s ok to bark at victims he can see.
Dogs can be trained to do something very specific, like find a person trapped in rubble. But, if you change it a bit, it’s like you changed everything and you have to take a step back and show the dog what you want. That’s why it’s so important to train your dog in different places, whether it’s a search dog or a pet. They don’t generalize very well.
We trained in the hotel until just before noon and headed home, hoped that we’d miss the Sunday Vegas traffic. We didn’t, of course. There was an accident and it took me five hours to get home when it should’ve taken three. Oh well. Totally worth it!