interviewing bob Calkins Search and rescue Dog trainer
How did you get started in your career?
A: I had always wanted to volunteer in search and rescue, and had done some communications for a SAR team in Seattle. (I’m also a ham radio operator.) My wife and I had previously owned a Great Dane, which would not be a good search dog unless your couch went missing. By sheer chance, I ended up with a golden retriever puppy named Sierra who tested well and we got started.
How do search dogs work?
A: Search dogs work in a couple of ways. Sometimes we give the dog a scent article from the missing person and they follow their path. This works best in populated areas where there are many other human scents around. These dogs work on-lead with the handler right behind. Dogs trained this way are called “trailing dogs.”
Out in the woods, we generally don’t give a scent article, and the dogs search for any human. If we find a backpacker who happens to be in the area, we reward the dog just as if they’d found the missing person. We interview the backpacker as a possible witness. (“We’re looking for Fred. Here’s a picture. Seen him?”) The advantage is that the dog can work off-leash, so the line doesn’t get tangled in the underbrush. The dog picks up the person’s scent on the wind and follows this “cone of scent” to its source. Dogs trained this way are called “air scent dogs.”
How long does it take to train a search dog?
A: Training the human is a lot harder than training the dog! Dogs instinctively know how to search. We only have to teach them what odor to find (human) and how to tell us they found it. Usually, that’s coming back to the handler and doing a sit, though some handlers have their dog jump on them or grab a toy tied to their pack.
The human, on the other hand, has to learn lots of other things. How to navigate in the woods. How to use the two-way radio. How to do first aid on someone when it might take two days to get them out of the woods. The very hardest part for the human is learning to let the dog be in charge. We have to trust that the dog is doing its job correctly and follow. In most other dog sports, like obedience or agility, we expect our dogs to follow us. In SAR, we have to follow the dog. Just changing that way of thinking can take months of practice. While my first dog Sierra was ready to search in about six months, it took me two years to be able to support her properly in the woods
How much time does it take to do a search dog work?
A: Between training and actual search missions I spend about 300 hours a year staying proficient.
Is there a preferred breed for search dogs?
A: There’s not a preferred breed. Mixed breeds (“mutts”) do just fine. Search dogs need to be big enough and strong enough to break through underbrush and work for hours at a time. What they also must have is a psychotic toy drive. They must want their ball or another toy so badly they’ll work for hours to get it.
Some dogs just don’t have the smelling ability or aren’t excited about a big game of hide-and-seek. That’s no different than humans- some like reading books and some like playing hockey. Dogs are individuals just like people.About the only breeds that don’t work are the pug-nosed type, as their smelling ability is reduced, and dogs that are extremely small or large because of stamina and health issues.
When you get a puppy what are some of the steps you take to train him?
A: The first steps involve getting them used to all of the other things that go on during a search. They get to hang out around the command post and get used to all the people coming and going. We try to get them around helicopters and big trucks and squawking radios. We don’t want those things to be scary later when they’re searching for real.
When the dog is old enough to start searching, we begin with letting them watch a person run down the trail and going after them. We work on teaching them what to do when they find someone. We’ll search for 30 seconds and then have five minutes of really over-the-top playtime with the dog. That’s to build their interest in searching, which to them is just a big game. One of the most important skills a handler must learn is how to properly reward their dog. It’s got to be loud and wiggly and in a high-pitched voice. If you don’t feel a bit silly, you’re not doing it right.
Can you walk us through a typical job you might be called out on?
A: Credible SAR teams only respond at the request of police or sheriffs. A sheriff’s deputy or detective will brief us on the missing person and we use the information to develop high-probability areas. A missing 50-year old mushroom picker behaves a lot differently when lost than someone 80-years old with dementia, or a six-year-old who’s mad at their parents.
After the briefing, we’re each assigned areas to work. These can be anything from the landscaping around a parking lot to a couple hundred acres. We go through those areas paying attention to the wind, trying to get the dog’s nose downwind of anyone who might be in the area. If the person is there, we expect our dogs to lead us to them. If the person’s not there, we go back and tell the police officer how well we covered the area. Sometimes we “swap” areas with another handler just to get double-coverage of each area.
Sometimes we’ll combine air scent and trailing dogs. We’ll let the trailing dog get a direction of travel, and then put air scent dogs out in front to search likely areas. One of my mission finds happened exactly this way.
Meantime the police are also checking with other family members, trying to pinpoint their cell phone, and checking to see if their credit cards are being used. One time my dog and I were in some really nasty terrain when we got a call on the radio—the missing woman had been found at the airport, on her way to Las Vegas!
If we find the person we provide initial care. We build a shelter over them, get some hot food in them, and maybe even get them into dry clothes that we carry. We radio the command post and they arrange for whatever is necessary to get them out of the area. Sometimes after hot food and drink the missing person can walk out themselves. Other times they’re carried out by teams of other searchers. Occasionally they go out by helicopter.
And like most emergency responders, we write a report when we’re done.
What advice would you have for someone thinking about getting into the line of work?
A: 300 hours per year is a lot of time, and if you’re not committed you’ll only get frustrated and have a bad experience. If you have two kids in school, each having soccer matches and dance recitals, a spouse who works 80 hours a week and an elderly parent who needs care, that might not be the time in your life to join SAR. If you’ve got free time, are in reasonably good health, and have a dog that likes to hike with you, then the odds get a little better.
We can be successful training someone who’s a bit out of shape physically, with not the greatest dog in the world, if they have the time to commit every week to get trained. But if they don’t have the time it’ll never work, even if they’re Daniel Boone bringing Lassie or Rin Tin Tin to the SAR team.
How many search and rescue missions have you been on?
A: I’ve never gone back through my records and counted. I’m sure it’s 100 or more, but not sure how much more.
How many dogs have you worked with?
A: I’ve worked with three dogs. Sierra was my first dog and the one on which my books are based. She was an OK search dog, but she helped me learn to be a handler. I made all my mistakes on her. I catch myself wondering how great a search dog she’d have been if I’d been a more experienced handler.
My next dog was Magnum, and I worked with him for 10 years. He got the fully trained version of me and did well. He was trained for air scent, and also to find deceased people. He was what’s called a “cadaver dog.” I have four real-world finds with Magnum, all of whom were deceased.
I’m now working with my third dog, Ruger. He got his national certification this summer, and we’re just beginning what I hope will be a long SAR career with him. He currently specializes in finding live people in the woods, and we’re starting to add training to make sure he’ll alert on someone who’s deceased as well. (How’s that for ending the interview on a positive note?)
About the Author – Robert D. (Bob) Calkins has been a SAR dog handler for more than a dozen years and is the author of the Sierra the Search Dog series of books. Bob broke the mold in publishing by writing for multiple genres with the same characters. Parents and youngsters can each read about Sierra the Search Dog in age-appropriate stories. Bob’s books can be found on Amazon.com.
Sierra Becomes a Search Dog – Preschoolers.
Sierra the Search Dog Finds Fred – Preschoolers.
Digger (Sierra and the case of the Chimera Killer) – A murder mystery for teens and adults.
Here is Bob Calkins website
Enjoy reading Angelika