Holly Springs, MS 2017


Holly Springs, MS 2017

Being an effective Search and Rescue team isn’t just a matter of training the dogs. It’s also a matter of us learning how to be better trainers.

In training it’s not always about searching for victims. Sometimes it’s about seeking out people who can enhance your skills.

That’s why Red Mountain Search Dog Association (RMSDA) took to the road this past weekend to join up with Mid-South Search And Rescue Dog Association (MSSARDA) in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

Over the next three days, Judy, Ginny, Lisa, Kathy, and Ken of MSSARDA shared over 20 years of combined experience with us–not nearly enough time to soak in all the great advice and skills they brought to the table.

After setting up camp at Wall Doxey State Park, we met up with the MSSARDA team to observe them work urban searches in the town square and streets of Holly Springs, a community straight out of a John Grisham novel and out of our usual wilderness search environment. We followed their K9 teams past storefronts, churches, and homes, watching how they worked these problems as compared to searching in the woods. This included trailing techniques (where the dog remains on lead) and also HRD (Human Remains Detection), which are two disciplines we hope to add to our services soon.

On Saturday we met back at Wall Doxey State Park to run some drills and let MSSARDA observe our team in action and see how we work together. We learned new approaches to encouraging enthusiasm in the dogs for returning to the victim. As victims, we learned how to up our own enthusiasm and rethink our role in training. One of the most important, game changing ideas was that we must give the dog a reason to be excited about coming back to us; that only when they bring their handler back to us does the real reward happen. So instead of us being an end to the game and the focus being on the handler rewarding, we become the focus and source of reward upon their returning with the handler. This means spending several minutes playing with and/or treating the dog ourselves while the handler stays neutral. It was amazing to see how quickly the dogs responded to this new relationship dynamic.

A critical side note here is that the victim is not ever going to replace the handler as far as becoming more important to the dog in the long run. It simply changes the focus for those few minutes so that the K9 is motivated to alert quickly and bring the handler back to the victim.

Saturday afternoon we relocated to the Marshall County maintenance compound and continued more urban searches. This was a dramatically different search environment for us and the dogs, even more so than the town center. Scrap metal, rusted out city vehicles (from cars to huge city trucks), piles of concrete (reminiscent of earthquake rubble), pipes, mounds of gravel, and steel all created an unpredictable maze of smells, textures, and sudden movement. Wind and scent move completely differently through this kind of setup than it does through the woods. Yet, the K9s all excelled in being challenged by these new scenarios, as did the handlers, thus opening up a world of new skills we can explore during our regular training.

Saturday evening Ken Letterman, a veteran and K9 Medic, gave us some great first aid information, from how to do CPR on your dog and avoiding overheating, to treating wounds and other injuries. While we try not to worry about our dogs as they range through wild areas, their safety is always a priority. Often in the field we will be the first responder for our K9s, so the ability to start treatment on our own is critical.

Sunday morning the training continued. We traveled with the team to Strawberry Plains Audubon Center, a beautiful plantation surrounded by giant cedars and lush pastures. We worked the dogs on the new skills we’d covered over the past two days, focusing on short runs so we could drill the alert, refind, and victim/K9 bond. Unfortunately the storms forced us to cut our training short and head home early.

In addition to the training sessions, an important part of our trip was the team building we experienced. While there we camped out at Wall Doxey State Park, enjoying meals under the stars and roughing it together. MSSARDA also spent time with us outside of training, showing us some of the better known “must see” spots in Holly Springs, including JB’s, the Holly Springs Train Depot, and Phillips Grocery–an old-fashioned store that boasts fried pies and Grapico. While this wasn’t official training, these kinds of shared experiences allow you to get to know each other as a group, and a team is only as strong as the bond between its members because SAR is not an individual endeavor.

Thank you again to Judy Otto, Ginny Bell, Lisa Todd, Kathleen Webb, and Ken Letterman for a weekend of invaluable training and fun.