The Vizsla Newzsletter (Aug / Sept 1998)
Forensic Search & Rescue

Image: Kallmee Vizcaya's Sassy Dax (Dax) - One of Ritas S&R dogs

Forensic Search & Rescue

by Rita Martinez

AUTHORS COMMENT: There's just so much to say on this topic. I decided to let folks that were interested find out more information from my (internet) site

While working in the Veterinary field I became acquainted with some folks doing Search and Rescue work with their dogs. As I listened to all the things they were doing, and observed, I knew I had to get involved. Not that I don't think it's fun to show a dog, but this is a whole different game. Working with a dog as your partner, or as we would call ourselves, being a "team" is somewhat comparable to a marriage. I've heard many spouses and family members make the statement that a handler "Spends more time with that dog than with me"! Indeed, you are constant companions.

After 20+ years of obedience work with dogs and being attracted to agility, I mistakenly thought I knew about dogs. Actually, I had grossly underestimated their capabilities.

I found searching for lost individuals less fascinating than specific scent work, so after one cross-trained canine, I decided to specialize in the work I found most interesting. That is, Forensic Evidence / Body Recovery work. In this field, often we are looking for small evidence, parts of bodies, or residual scent, as well as whole bodies. This means the canine has been specifically trained to indicate a scent source as being from decomposed human tissue. In the case of residual scent, the dog can indicate that the scent source HAD been there. So, we are now training dogs to alert exclusively on decomposed human scent, never teaching them to look for live human scent. Thus the term, scent specific.

Training a dog to certification status takes from 18 months to 2 years. After training the first, since you have accomplished your basic handler skills, you can move along spending more time on the dog skills. However, when starting with a puppy, you need to allow time for them to mature.

Dogs doing this type of work are required to know basic skills aside from specific scent identification. They must pass obedience tests, swim proficiently, be social with other dogs and humans, transport with other dogs in vehicles and helicopters, and do agility type exercises as directed. This is not the fun, competitive agility. This is climbing rubble and balancing, handling unsteady surfaces (on land and water), tunnels, crawl through tight places, walk planks, climb up and down all types of ladders, take visual and verbal direction from a distance, sometimes working out of sight from the handler.

Image: John Butler in Australia does beautiful Bronze Vizslas and apparently has also done some wonderful Vizsla paintings. If anyone in interested in a painting or bronze and wants more information they may email him.

Handlers must also have some skills. These include Emergency Responder with CPR for the professional, Haz-Mat responder, radio communications, map and compass, basic knots and hasty harness, man tracking, search strategy, human osteology, crime scene awareness, terminology, and report writing.

The Vizsla AKC (American Kennel Club) Breed Standard reads "A natural hunter endowed with a good nose and above-average ability to take training". I've been involved with Vizsla for nearly 20 years, and after much thought, decided to use a Vizsla for this scent specific work. Generally, the working, sporting, and herding breeds do best at this. But, not many Vizslas are involved. I think the reason for that is simply that they aren't as popular, generally. Certainly it is not that they aren't capable.

So, I very carefully chose a puppy (took a year), tested for aptitude at 49 days, and started a new dog. I exposed her to scent right away (8 weeks). But, in those beginning months we spent the majority of the time learning obedience, agility, and general exposure to all sorts of situations. Every day we did something new. One day would be to ride an elevator. The next, walk past workers using a jackhammer. We visited the convalescent home and met people in wheelchairs, with walkers and canes. We played with children (including going down the slide and climbing up the ladders with them), walked through crowds, sat at outside cafes and left people alone (a real obedience test for a V). All this while also learning general things like to quietly stay in the car, ride, play with other dogs. Sounds like overload, but we were having so much fun! Every day a new adventure.

Training is ALWAYS fun. I'm a clicker trainer, as are many others. The whole learning process is done with operant conditioning and my dogs all think it's the best game in town. Sure beats lying around home waiting until someone says, "walk". The term "working dog" is for humans the dogs would probably call themselves "recreationally engaged". And we handlers feel just as excited as our partners do. It is such a blast to watch your best friend do something well and look up and smile (they do grin, you know).

The scent work is taught with much care to help them learn to search (cover an area) and then tell you they have found something (alert). They have to be able to work with independence while also taking direction. Since they are hunters, Vizslas take well to the basics. It's very much like hide and seek except they are only looking for scent. Scent specific canines are proofed throughout their working careers to ignore any scent but decomposed human. They will not show us deceased animal, fresh live human scent, etc.

The canines are always rewarded for their efforts, and they are willing to work diligently to find the scent source so they will get that reward. There is always a big playtime upon completion of an exercise. Don't be deceived into thinking "working dogs" are not full-fledged family members. These dogs do not live in kennels and only accompany the handler when working. They belong to the handler, live in the home, and in every way are the pampered pet. The difference is, we play a unique game that is designated a "job".

I spend from 80 100 hours a month training, travelling to new areas to train, and keeping current on handler skills. Upon passing certification, we are required to continue to train and recertify annually with our partners.

I can only say that I'm grateful to be able to do this work with my favorite breed. We have a play/work relationship that I wouldn't trade. The Vizsla sense of humor combined with intense work focus makes them outstanding partners.

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