K-9 Training: When The Lost Are Found

Handlers must find balance between guiding and following


Susan Starr (left) listens closely as Cody Chartier gives instructions on where Starr’s dog is going and where the scent bag is for him to sniff before he takes off on his search. Vice commander of Tonto Rim Search and Rescue, Gary Hall, listens intently to the instructions.

Susan Starr (left) listens closely as Cody Chartier gives instructions on where Starr’s dog is going and where the scent bag is for him to sniff before he takes off on his search. Vice commander of Tonto Rim Search and Rescue, Gary Hall, listens intently to the instructions. Photo by Andy Towle. |

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K-9 handler Susan Starr had a split-second decision to make. Her dog, Ringo, had veered suddenly from the scent of the person he sought, hiding down the hill in a thicket during this training exercise in Rumsey Park on Tuesday.

Ringo had been following the faint scent of the missing person along a trail marked so that Starr could make sure Ringo stayed on the track. But suddenly, Ringo lifted his head from the ground, looked down the slope working his wet black nose furiously. Now, he’d started to turn off the scent to head downhill. Was he after a rabbit? A tantalizing trace of elk? The scent of another dog?

Should Starr trust Ringo’s instinct — or put him back on the marked trail.

She calculated the odds and studied her dog — remembering his alert intelligence a few weeks earlier when he’d held tenaciously to the scent of a lost Boy Scout in Globe.

Ringo found the boy.

Shed’ give him his head now.

So she let him bound down the slope.

Ringo went straight to the “missing” man, following his scent on the air instead of on the ground — cutting precious time off the search.

Dogs are more than man’s best friends when it comes to search and rescue and K-9 units, they’re both co-workers and companions.

The effectiveness of this cross-species team depends as much on the trainer’s ability to read the dog’s thoughts and personality as it does on the meticulous training.

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Toulouse locates the spot where the two lost hikers left their bag, as Susan Starr encourages his success and scores this as a find.

All that was on display Tuesday as K-9 handlers from the Department of Corrections in Winslow and the Tonto Rim Search and Rescue (TRSAR) paired up Tuesday at Rumsey Park to practice several training drills with their dogs, including finding “lost” people.

Unlike the training procedures in other fields, working with dogs in these areas is an ongoing process said Susan Starr, TRSAR member and K-9 handler.

The K-9 training exercises not only provide the dogs and their handlers with constant practice, but also offer residents a firsthand look at search and rescue missions and dog-and-handler relations.

Unlike most police dogs, search and rescue dogs don’t have to be any particular breed. For example, the TRSAR dogs on scene Tuesday included an Australian shepherd, a blue-tick hound and a Labrador.

Similarly, search and rescue dogs come from a variety of places, including the Humane Society and breeders.

But no matter the dogs breed or origin, trainers look for essential characteristics. The most important? Motivation.

Furthermore, the age and personality of the dog determine when it can begin training.

Starr explained that she started Ringo, a 3-year-old, when he was 10 weeks old, while, Toulouse, the blue-tick hound, wasn’t ready to start until he turned 2. Each dog now excels in different fields, according to their talents.

For example, Ringo, was accredited with finding a lost Boy Scout down in Globe a couple of years ago, expounded Starr.

The main drill exercised Tuesday tested the dogs’ ability to catch a scent and lead their handlers through a forested area to find the “lost” person — a TRSAR volunteer. The correct trail was marked so the handler would know when the dog got off course. In such situations, the handler directed the leashed dog in a “half-moon” or “sweep” near where the right trail lay, without telling the dog where to go.

Starr explained that it was important to find the balance between guiding the dog and following the dog’s instincts. Starr illustrated this concept when she allowed Ringo to follow the scent he caught from a downhill wind and make a shortcut in the trail, where he found the “lost” person.

“They are trained to understand the scent and, as they’re searching for somebody, locating and relocating that scent, until they find the person,” Starr said.

A K-9 handler in difficult situations must maintain calm and patient behavior because the dogs immediately sense any sign of frustration. One of the biggest ways for the dogs to mess-up is for the handler to make mistakes. The bond between the handler and the dog is important because the dog sees the situation as not work but a big game.

“The hardest thing for a handler is to be able to read the dog ... it’s one of the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life ... it’s not easy,” concluded Starr.

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