Guest Author: Debbie Sorber Rosch, ’80 (Hall of Fame 2019
In our previous episode, we ended with a cliffhanger. John Swaney and his search dog, Hogan, of Burning River K9 Search and Rescue, were in the final moments of their certification test search. They had already searched most of their 50-acre assignment at Gretchen Reed’s Pheasant Run Airport, with only a tiny area of the sector remaining to be searched and nine minutes to find their subject before time ran out.
Despite both handler and K9 feeling fatigue and frustration, John took a few of his precious time to review his map, coverage, and observations made up to that point. Hogan gratefully rested and took sips of water from his handler’s backpack. Considering the wind direction, John made a decision about how to approach and efficiently search quickly.
With only a couple minutes left, volunteer search subject Sheila Hullihen was located, her position plotted on the map, and coordinates called back into base using hand- held radios. It was an excellent opportunity for the usually flawless and fast team of John and Hogan to show how they could work together and succeed when random search circumstances conspired against them.
In my own search and rescue career over the past 21 years, I have found myself in the middle of some irregular or messy scenarios. In such straits, we must call upon our training, experience, and mental/physical toughness to be successful. I am fortunate that my current canine partners enjoy being challenged and solving problems. Nine-year-old Spin and three-year old Twist, both Australian shepherds, never let me down. Indeed, it is often the large human cerebral cortex on the team that tries to overthink everything and makes mistakes.
On our team of six handlers and seven dogs, there are five German shepherds and two Aussies. We don’t discriminate against other breeds, and mixed breeds are certainly welcome. Most handlers have a breed or type preference. Statistically, SAR dogs tend to represent herding or sporting breeds or mixtures of them. They are conveniently sized, typically athletic, and highly trainable. A strong work ethic rounds out their skills.
We train with our teammates once or twice a week year around in addition to following up with individual training on obedience skills, exposure to distractions, and simple fundamentals. Trained, certified, and deployable dogs “own” their jobs. They are our equal partners and enjoy leading the way with their superior senses and instincts. Although they are also our pets and beloved family members who live in our homes, they are more than pets. They are invaluable tools and partners who form unique and special relationships with us.
Our dogs are trained in either live-find area search, human remains search (on land or in water), or scent specific trailing. Some dogs and handlers master more than one discipline. Our team training sessions range from small, simple fundamental exercises to build or maintain skills to larger, longer and more complex, realistic search problems. We train in several places and are always looking for new areas that demand we practice using our maps, compasses or GPS units to plan and execute a search.
Working with canines in search and rescue has taught me many skills that easily translate to other areas of my life. For example, I have learned to keep my spoken communication very clear and concise because dogs need brevity and consistency in their learning process. I have learned that any reward system is made much more valuable when accompanied by authentic praise and appreciation expressed in words and nonverbal communication.
Similarly, correction or discipline are best when delivered promptly, directly and succinctly – in a coaching manner rather than a heavy-handed, punitive manner. If I have to make a correction with my K9s, I do it and then leave it behind us. Dogs live fully in each moment; they don’t stress about the past, nor do they concern themselves with what the future holds. I feel their concentration on what is now has been their biggest gift to me, and I strive to think like they do in this way.
Bad things happen to people in this world. Statistically, the odds are that none of us will experience the terror and devastation of a child who has gotten lost by wandering away or been taken. Most of us won’t be victims of a natural or man-made disaster or have a loved one be a victim of a violent crime.
On the other hand, these infrequent and sometimes random acts do happen, and none of us are magically protected or exempt. My overwhelming sense on a search is “There but for the grace of God go I.” The families we serve were having a normal, routine day, until suddenly they found themselves in the middle of a nightmare. For that reason, I try to train my dogs and myself, plus I support my teammates, so that we can be the resource we would want if our own loved ones were missing. I am grateful for the family, friends and community that understands our mission and supports us.