Search & Rescue

Vegas: Creating Independence

One thing that kicks up the stress level when training a search dog is a blind problem. (We refer to a problem as “blind” when the handler doesn’t know the location of the victims.) The problems are always blind for the dogs, but aren’t usually blind for the handler. We don’t run them very often because building holes and burying victims is a team effort, and if you’re going to run a blind that means you sit in the car while everyone else works. In Vegas, the guys were nice enough to set up a blind problem for me.

Kinsey Searching

Kinsey is the kind of dog that wants to please, and I’m the kind of handler that creates a dependent dog. Because a blind problem increases my stress level, any issue I have with Kinsey is magnified. She reads me easily, and when I’m upset she pays more attention to me than she should. I love the fact that she wants me to feel better, but it distracts her from her job. (Perhaps more yoga would help me. Less worry. More joy.)

So, lately, Kinsey comes back to ask me what to do instead of ranging out to look for a victim on her own. Over the past few months, when she came back to look at me, I responded with the “search” command and pointed my hand in the direction I wanted her to go. This may sound logical, but search dogs must be independent. While we’re a team, the dog finds the victims by running over large areas of rubble. So, a dog that doesn’t range out is not a good thing. When we ran the blind problem in Vegas, she came back to check in with me about five times. When I did not respond, she stood still, head raised, as if posing for a photograph. She wanted me to tell her what to do, and I wanted her to figure it out on her own.

In order to break the habit I’ve decided that when she stares at me for too long, instead of giving her a verbal command and pointing, I will move a step, wait, and avoid eye contact. The goal is to gradually stop responding to her so that she ranges out on her own.

Honestly, I don’t know if it will work. But to find out, I must be consistent for the next few months. The problem is that when I find myself in a hurry because there are three dogs waiting to search the pile after me or everyone wants to go home, I tell her to search, point where I want her to go, and thus reinforce the behavior I’m trying to extinguish.

So, I’ll give this a try. If it doesn’t work, I’ll try something else.

It would be so much easier if I could explain exactly what I’d like her to do, wouldn’t it?


I don’t want you to think this means she didn’t find the victims, she did. But it took longer than I’d have liked, and I may have told her to search once. (Yes, I’m impatient, and there were a lot of people watching!)


Tips to extinguish a behavior:


  • Identify what you, as a trainer, would like the dog to do. (Range out.)
  • Identify the behavior you want to extinguish. (Coming back to check with me.)
  • Make a short, simple plan. (Make no sound. Avoid eye contact. Take a step forward.)
  • Practice the plan with your dog several hundred times. (Yes hundred. And in different locations. And at different times. And with various distractions.)

When it doesn’t work? Self-reflect. Reevaluate. Be honest with yourself because most often behavior problems are the responsibility of the trainer, not the dog.

One more entry about Vegas coming up this week! We searched a casino!

Everyone who came out in 109 degree weather to train dogs!
Everyone who came out in 109 degree weather to train dogs!
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