Avalanche SAR | Positive Pet Training Blog Hop

Kali and me came to search and rescue more or less by good luck. It was sheer luck that I choose exactly that trainer for our mandatory dog classes (in Switzerland you have to visit both a theoretical course before you get your dog and practical classes with your dog after you got him), who also was the leader of our local avalanche SAR group for many years. She has helped us a lot in getting Kali more comfortable around stranger dogs. So, shortly after Kali had been in Switzerland for a year, we went for our first SAR training.

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Happy Kali waiting for her turn.

We are not training for real deployments. I’m still at university, that means I’m too far away from the mountains for the biggest part of each week. We always spend the weekend in the mountains, but right now that’s just not enough.

We train because we enjoy doing so. Kali loves to use her nose, and I love giving her a chance to do so. It’s amazing to see how much a dog can achieve in this training field with positive training methods, in such a short time!

In this post I’ll give you a short overview of how we train the beginnings of avalanche SAR, purely positive, without any force or pressure on the dog:

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Clearly visible beginner’s cave in the background

At first the dog has to learn that a snow cave is a really good place to be, we need to build up positive associations. For this, both the handler and the dog go into the cave together. The dog is allowed to enter and leave as he wants. He gets praise and some treats for being in the cave. After the dog feels comfortable in the snow cave we start with these four steps:

1. The handler runs into the cave calling the dog, motivating him to follow. Meanwhile the dog, being held by someone else, watches how his handler disappears in a clearly visible snow cave. The cave is not closed but left fully open. The dog first needs to understand that something good is happening when he gets to the person in the snow cave, before we show him that he needs to find and then also dig people out. When he gets into the cave, the dog gets praise and some special treats. We use sausage for this, something Kali never gets at home, only for successful searches. So that makes them really high-value treats.

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A handler calling and motivating her dog before she goes into the cave

2. This step is mostly like the first, but with the difference, that the cave is slightly closed, with loose blocks of snow. It is important not to go too fast at this step, the dog doesn’t have to really dig. The cave should be closed in a way that the dog can enter it by merely pushing in some of the blocks. Some dogs have difficulty with this step, because they are not used to dig around in snow. Often it helps if an assistant (remember, the handler is in the cave and should not help in any way from inside the cave) just slightly scratches at the snow blocks. The dogs usually understand pretty fast what we ask of them. Then again, when the dog successfully enters the cave he gets praise and high-value treats.

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Closing a cave for the first few times: small, loose blocks of snow

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A cave closed more thoroughly, for advanced dogs

3. Now add a ‘stranger’ for the first time. It’s pretty obvious that the dog won’t have to search its own handler later on, and although that is a good motivation in the beginning, we want to fade that pretty soon (however, even for advanced dogs it’s a great motivation from time to time to search their own handler, a close family member or good friend). So for this step the handler goes into the cave first, but doesn’t call the dog anymore. This part is now taken over by someone else. The stranger takes over the part of motivating the dog, and then goes into the cave, so that in the cave the handler is in the back and the stranger in the front. The cave is again slightly closed and upon entering the dog will receive praise and treats – only from the stranger.

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Beginner’s dog entering a snow cave

4. The last of these four steps is to check if the dog understood that he needs to go into the cave even without his handler being in there, so this is the first time the handler actually handles the dog himself. The cave is again closed only slightly, we want the dog to have pretty easy access to the cave to keep the motivation high.

This is the base for the training as I learned it. I’m sure there are other training methods, but I’m very convinced by this method, as for one it is all positive, without bringing any pressure on the dog or handler, and secondly it also works very fast. The dogs understand pretty soon what we want from them and because they have lots of positive associations with the whole business, they also really enjoy doing it.

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An advanced dog doing a search for two persons, while his handler and trainer follow him

After these four steps it gets more complicated. We slowly make it more difficult by either closing the cave more thoroughly, enlarge the distance between the start point of the dog and the cave, start without the dog seeing the dummy person running away…

But we always only make one of these factors more complicated. If we close the caves better, we want the dog to learn how to dig. We do not let the dog start farther away at the same time. I think you get the idea… The searches will get more complicated, the search fields get bigger, the snow caves are deeper. I will try to get a video of us doing a bigger search the next time, check back here for an update.

Searching is an amazing opportunity for a dog to use its nose. It’s a natural behavior, and by working together as a team on something as natural as searching someone, we can strengthen the bond to our dogs.

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The only real downside of avalanche SAR training: We also work in bad weather and sometimes the dogs need to be tied up outside in strong winds and heavy snowfall. This is Kali buried under her blanket (thick military blanket), in a two feet deep hole. She was covered in snow after only two minutes.

These are two videos of Kali at work. The first one shows the inside of a snow cave, and what it looks like when a dog finds the hidden person.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMJ9s6-Rm0o

The second shows a short, easy search, as it was the very last one of three days of training, and then we always do something easier for the tired dogs to keep their motivation high for the next time.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N24C6nPjxus

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Enjoying a well-earned break in our beautiful mountains – who couldn’t love this?

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1750900_origWe are joining in the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop, hosted by Cascadian Nomads, Dachshund Nola & Tenacious Little Terrier. Each month, bloggers and readers share and learn about positive pet training techniques, tools, frustrations and triumphs. Join every first Monday of the month!

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