Monday, May 8, 2017

Living with a Search Dog

Zap in front of 60 people waiting 
to see a search dog demonstration
The first step in becoming a canine handler is finding the right partner. The second, and often equally difficult step, is figuring out how you guys are going to live together. 

It is not uncommon for young search dogs to make for pretty terrible “pets.” Most handlers screen dogs for characteristics that connect directly to “bad dog” behaviors...high toy drive is great for working a rubble pile, but maybe not so much for when they discover that the pillows on your couch make great toys too. These dogs can make fast work of an “indestructible” Kong, so our furniture doesn’t stand much of a chance.

The vast majority of urban search and rescue canines are required to have a “bark and hold” alert, meaning they will find a victim and bark until the handler comes to reward them...and each of us can remember, not so fondly, when we first taught our dogs to “speak” and the subsequent weeks or months of them barking at us in an attempt to get a reward. Zapp is 3 and ½ years old and still does plenty of “back talk” barking whenever I’m making him do obedience or agility work….or, heaven forbid, I take a short nap on the couch when I should clearly be throwing the ball for him. 

The athletic prowess of these dogs is unmatched by any aside from Military Working Dogs (MWD), and handlers are reminded of this by their canines bouncing on their beds at 4:00 am like children on Christmas morning or making yet another attempt to break out of their crate. The thought “how aren’t you tired yet” is a great one to have about your canine on deployment, but not so much as your shoulder is about to come apart from throwing a tennis ball for 45 straight minutes or trying to get them out of the pool or lake after two hours of swimming.
And the vet bills...oh the vet bills. Like their handlers, our canine partners tend to be risk takers with a high pain tolerance. Broken toe nails, small lacerations, blood spurting from “happy tail” injuries, bitten tongues, and all manner of scrapes and bruises are regular occurrences for search dogs. I know many handlers that have significantly more medical equipment for their canine partners than they do for themselves.

Here’s Zapp post patching up from his local vet. The shirt is to buy me a little bit of time to stop him from scratching his stitches when they start itching.

But if I’m being honest, most of us get the dog we deserve. And if you’re very lucky, as I am, a handler ends up with a dog that can read you and nudge your arm when the stress of a deployment is getting to you. Or they will curl up next to you as you rest your head on a deployment bag during a ten minute break in the field. For many of us, they truly are our partners, our battle buddies, the ones that we spend more time with, even more so than many of our most important human to human relationships.