Kinsey and I go out to schools and the occasional fundraiser to talk about search dogs and do demos. Below are a few of the questions I’m asked at every “Dog Show.”
What does your search dog do?
Kinsey is trained to find people that are alive, but trapped in rubble. In the event of a large earthquake, Kinsey would be the one running over the debris, head down sniffing out live victims. She alerts only on people she can smell, but cannot see. Her alert is a bark. She is not scent discriminant. Meaning, she will alert on any live person. She does not need to smell the clothing of a victim to find them. In fact, she is trained not to alert on clothing, animals or food.
Why does she look for people?
While I would love to say that Kinsey does this job because she wants to help humanity, that’s not true. Search dogs have a very specific type of drive, toy drive. Kinsey is so crazy for toys that she will risk her life to get one and play tug with it. When we are training, all of the buried victims have toys. Kinsey barks and they stick the toy out and play tug. It’s a sophisticated game of Hide and Seek, and Kinsey is an exceptional seeker. She has become so conditioned to bark at victims she can smell but not see that you don’t need to carry a dog toy around in your pocket in case of an earthquake. When we test, none of the victims have toys. I carry the toys in my pocket and reward her.
What do you look for in a puppy?
Only about two hundred dogs are FEMA certified nationwide, so dogs aren’t bred for search work. When looking for a puppy, we want parents that are successful hunting dogs. Then we ask the breeder to evaluate the puppies and send us a confident dog that loves to retrieve. With Rook, I had to trust the breeder completely because the litter was in Illinois.
Both of the dogs I have now retrieved at eight weeks old. When a puppy is willing to go after a toy like Rook did at nine weeks, you can be pretty confident he has the toy drive necessary to become a search dog.
What breeds do you use?
On the west coast it’s usually Labrador retrievers, some Golden retrievers and a few German shepherds. On the east coast they tend to use more German shepherds. In theory, any breed with the right drive, temperament and size could do search work, but my training group has found Labs to be the most successful.
How long does it take to train a search dog?
I start as soon as I get the puppy, which, best-case scenario, is eight weeks old and the earliest they can certify is eighteen months, though that is unusual. For the most part, a dog certifies between two and three, depending on the time put into training and the skill of the handler. It is possible to get a dog that is a year old, two at the most, and train them to be a search dog. But, search dogs can only work until they’re about ten. After that, though they love the work, they’re not physically able to handle a long deployment. So, we like to start them as soon as possible.
Have you ever been deployed?
No. Statistically, you are lucky if you are deployed once in the lifetime of your dog.