The Adventures of
The Search and Rescue Dog

Rufus in Uniform

Rufus and I--Jeff Schwartz-- have been training for the San Diego Sheriff's K9 Search & Rescue Unit which is also the local chapter of the California Rescue Dog Assn (CARDA) since last Memorial Day.

First we went to an orientation where we got a lot of preliminary information and the group was able to do a quick evaluation of Rufus and me. Next came 5 training sessions for me without Rufus.  That gave the people in the unit a chance to get to know me better and determine if I was serious enough to get up early Sunday mornings and haul my butt out to the boonies even without Rufus.  It also gave me a chance to run trails with other people and their dogs and to observe area search teams doing their thing.  That way I would have some idea what it was Rufus and I would be training for.

Rufus and Jeff

Finally, Rufus and I began our training with what they call 'walk aways'.  Basically the subject gets the dog excited by making noise, playing with the dog, waving food in his face whatever it takes then runs about 50-100 yds away.  Then the handler (me) presents the scent article to the dog and gives the search  command and the dog chases the subject.  When the dog reaches the subject he gets praise, play and yes, treats.  Once the dog learns to associate the scent article and the search command with the reward the subject runs and hides forcing the dog to use his nose and a trailing dog is born.

Rufus has 2 things in his favor.  He is very food-motivated and also very "nose-y".  The people working with us were very impressed that Rufus used his nose from the very first walk away.  So was I.  We were able to progress immediately to the hiding step.

Besides trailing, CARDA has many requirements for trailing dogs.  One training session was at a navy base with a small reasonably enclosed beach where dogs can swim.  CARDA requires that all dogs swim 50' in a natural body of water (ie not a pool).  Rufus, who hates baths,  loved the beach.  He didn't start swimming that time but I got the feeling that they rarely do on the first try.

Another thing the unit does is rubble search.  Rubble requires the dogs to be off-leash so Rufus probably won't do that but we still attend the rubble training sessions.  The sheriff's dept has a training facility with a fence enclosed rubble field.  Since it was enclosed, I took Rufus for an off leash walk in the rubble.  He did really good until he got his paws on a chunk of concrete that wasn't stable and he sort of froze.

The rubble field is also where we train for agility.  They have most of the normal agility things like tunnels, teeter-totters, jumps, and dogwalks but instead of being wood and plastic toys, these things are made of rubble.  Rufus was a little hesitant about the tunnels until the other dogs started playing in them.  He figured if they were in the tunnels, he should be too. He still isn't real fond of the teeter-totter.

After 3 sessions of walk aways, we decided that Rufus might be ready to try a real trail.  His first trail was pretty much geared for success.  It was about 30 minutes old which is basically fresh.  Had vegetation on both sides so the scent was contained and was fairly short at about 1/4 mile.  Rufus ran the trail like he'd been doing it for years.  He impressed some people that day, including me.

Our next trail was a little tougher.  It was over 24 hours old and was on a college campus where there was a variety of surfaces and open areas.  I ran with a couple other dogs then I ran with Rufus and he performed as good as any of the more experienced dogs.

That brings us up to last weekend.  Saturday morning we went to the rubble field and played on the agility stuff.  I got to be a subject for a rubble search while Rufus sat in the car and made as much noise as possible.  Some of the area search people got their signoffs for a 'long down'.  The handler lays their dog down then moves out of site.  The dog must stay for 10 minutes where the first 5 minutes are quiet then there are 3 minutes of noise and 2 more minutes of quiet.  I don't think Rufus has to do that.

Saturday night we went to our first night training session.  Someone had layed a trail the day before.  I ran the trail with a bloodhound and her handler.  The bloodhound had trouble in one area which was very open and the area search dogs were in that area too.  Therefore, I wasn't real surprised when Rufus also had trouble in that area.  However, I would not give Rufus or myself a real good grade for that search.  He kept wanting to wander off either because some of the subject's scent had drifted or because he smelled some critter he thought would be tasty.  Its hard to tell sometimes.

One of the problems with training situations is that the subject doesn't walk to a place and wait for 2 days.  They walk their trail, then go back to their car and on training day they walk from their car to the end of the trail.  Well, Rufus was finally back on trail and was heading for the parking lot even though we passed about 20 feet from the subject.  That isn't a mistake though.  The qualifying test requires that on a 48 hour old trail, the trailing dog has to get within 50' of the subject.
Next up...Besides weekly training, there is mock search scheduled for 10/02 and I also need to get my application in to the sheriff's dept so I can attend the search and rescue academy.

Stay tuned for the Continuing Adventures of Rufus the SAR Dog

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Updated 01 December 1999