Hunting the Wind: The Making of a Search & Rescue Dog by Ann McGloon
2008 Spaniel Journal Writing Contest Winner
"Do you think a Sussex spaniel would make a good area search dog?" That was the question that I posed to Pluis Davern - a long-time Sussex breeder with years of experience as a professional canine trainer, including search and rescue work - as we sat together on a picnic bench at the conclusion of the first day of our clubís annual spaniel hunt test. Her response was short but positive, "Sure, with the right Sussex, you bet."
Well, at home I had what I believed was the right Sussex. Beryl, bred by myself and a close friend, possessed the personality I felt would make her an excellent search dog: strong hunt and prey drive, trainability, a love of people, and that seemingly limitless spaniel energy. Being recently retired from federal government service, I now had the time (and a very supportive husband) to devote to search-and-rescue, something that had interested me ever since taking a mountain rescue training course in college way too many years ago.
So, for the past two years Beryl and I have been out in the woods of southern Oregon at least twice and often three times a week in all kinds of weather learning the skills to become a fully certified search and rescue K9 team. Add to that agility and obedience training, K9 seminars, and sharing a tent together in the pouring rain along the Oregon coast, and you can probably begin to understand the special bond that we share.
I remember our first official training day like it was yesterday, however. Our K9 team was headed to the mountains for some late season snow training and I was going to start Beryl on her first puppy runaway exercises. Jaws dropped when I took Beryl, affectionately known now as "little B", out of the car. My training mentor and now good friend pulled me aside and cautioned me that because of her size (she stands 14" at the withers) she may not make it as a search dog, so I should prepare myself in case she washes out of the program. We often laugh now about that first day as Beryl, throughout her training, has continued to surprise the doubters and prove that first perceptions arenít always what they seem.
"I searched for some path, some opening, anything to help but found nothing. I finally just picked Beryl up and like a linebacker pushed through with all my strength. One advantage to having a smaller dog!"
I often find myself reciting breed history when asked "What kind of dog is that?" or "She can only search flat park-like settings, right?" My response usually goes something like this: "A Sussex is a working spaniel, a very determined and thorough hunter with great drive, a keen nose, and a special aptitude for thick cover and steep drainages." I tell people itís those qualities that make her a good match for southern Oregon. The area here is still mostly a wild place; thousands of acres of pine forests and steep mountain slopes, which, more often than not, are choked in manzanita, poison oak, and a colorful variety of wild berries that grow with abandon in the near perfect climate.
Last September, we passed our countyís 60-acre intermediate level certification. However, in Oregon, to be fully mission ready and be able to assist in searches statewide, you must be certified to standards set forth by the Oregon State Sheriffs Association (OSSA). For wilderness air scent/area search dogs this requires you and your canine partner to search an area of 160 acres of moderate terrain and cover, and successfully locate a hidden subject. For the evaluation you are allowed four hours to complete the test.
In the fall, Beryl and I had an opportunity to test but the hot dry weather and lack of wind conspired and we failed to locate our subject in the required time allowed. No trial goes without its rewards, however, and I learned a great deal from the experience. Because Beryl "ranges" as you would expect from a Sussex - on average between 50 and 150 feet, depending on cover conditions - I realized that for us to be able to effectively search 160 acres in four hours I needed to be the best handler I could be. So, throughout the winter, we set up training problems that honed my skills as a handler and also encouraged her to range and commit to those long-distance alerts. I analyzed her every move (Was that a slight turn of the head as she Ďhití on scent? Did her body posture or tail carriage just change?) so I could better learn to read and trust my dog.
By mid-winter we were on a roll; she and I were working so well together, a solid team.
Then a near miss. During one of our countyís mock-search exercises, we were stalked by two young cougars and if it hadnít been for the sharp eyes of my back-up who reported that the cats were within striking range and my ability to call Beryl back to me, I have no doubt that in a few short moments the cats would have struck and I would have lost my dog. A deep sigh of relief but a stark and very real reminder of the potential dangers of training a wilderness search dog.
Then just two weeks later, after a glorious textbook perfect training day, near disaster struck again. As we walked back to the cars at the conclusion of training, Beryl was stomped by a loose horse on her right rear leg. On the drive home, I believe I was in as much pain as she was. Had Berylís working life just ended before it had even got started? X-rayís confirmed that nothing was broken but it was hard to gauge how much, if any, ligament damage had occurred. After a couple of days, she was putting some weight back on her leg and then by weekís end she was walking on it. But, was the medication masking the pain? I took her off the medication and watched her every step looking for even the smallest signs of pain or stiffness. So far so good but she was on strict rest and relaxation.
Itís so hard to keep a spaniel still and for a handler to have the patience to not push too fast, too soon. Finally, after about a month, I was able to slowly introduce some light training exercises. She was happy to be working again. Then I got a call that another testing opportunity was available in early March. Would we be ready? I knew I wasnít going to even attempt the test unless I was certain that Beryl was healed and she wasnít going to be re-injured. I played it day-by-day and by the end of another month I felt she was fit to test. So, in early March, Beryl and I headed back up to the Deschutes National Forest for our OSSA evaluation.
The plan was to re-test in the area where we had tested the previous fall but those plans quickly went by the wayside as we encountered roads that became impassable due to the heavy winter snows that had blanketed the Cascade Range. We stopped when we could go no further. Our evaluation site was located at 3,700 feet, the terrain was sloping and a dense conifer forest covered the area. Forest deadfall, a couple of old clear cuts covered in manzanita, and snow cover ranging from a few inches to over three feet completed the picture before us. The morning had dawned clear, a pleasant 40 degrees, with a light to moderate breeze from the north.
My search strategy was to search along our western boundary to our southern boundary and then grid in an east-to-west fashion heading northward into the wind. As soon as we began our search, we encountered very tough conditions. Snow level was thigh deep in places and covered hidden obstacles like the twisted and sharp branches of fallen timber and tangled brush. In shaded areas the snow was encrusted with a layer of ice but where the sun had warmed the sparkling surface, we both sank deep into the snow. We reached our southern boundary and then turned eastward on a bearing of 80 degrees. It was rough going; Beryl was frustrated by the deep snow and a couple of times looked at me and said with conflicted eyes, "Iím trying the best I can. This is hard. But Iíll find her, letís keep going." Inside, I worried about her leg.
Then, about halfway through our first grid-pass Beryl alerted to the northeast. She momentarily hesitated, held her head high, her body stiff and erect, and pointed in the direction of the scent that she had just caught. I repeated over and over in my head the infamous mantra, "trust your dog, trust your dog". I encouraged her and we headed northeast. We then encountered a "wall" of near impenetrable manzanita covered partially in snowdrifts. Beryl was frantically trying to get through without falling into dead-space as she broke through the snow covered bushes. She looked at me for help, "We need to get through". I searched for some path, some opening, anything to help but found nothing. I finally just picked Beryl up and like a linebacker pushed through with all my strength. One advantage to having a smaller dog!
A short time later we crossed tracks. But, the tracks were heading in the wrong direction! They were headed southeast taking whoever made them outside the southern boundary of our search area. I asked the evaluator the body size of the subject and was told she was my height and build. I looked at the footprints in the snow and they seemed similar to mine. I studied the tracks some more and made the decision to follow. It was a gamble I knew I had to take as the conditions were so difficult that I felt this was our only chance. I had to trust my dog. Beryl had given me her classic natural alert and led us to the tracks; she had to have picked up the fresh scent of our subject. Although hikers and hunters did frequent the area there were no other cars at the trailhead other than ours that day and
I knew that subjects donít always hide "inside" search boundaries. All of this raced through my mind as Beryl worked out ahead of me following the scent trail, stopping to smell the scent as it clung to the bushes and even once or twice putting her nose so deep into the footsteps of what I hoped was our subject that her entire head was submerged under the snow. We had only traveled a short distance, less than 500 feet, when Beryl became extremely animated. To our immediate east was a large conifer thicket, the branches of the trees bending all the way to the ground like the arms of tired old men; the thicket was dark but underneath I could see long-ago fallen trees and other debris littering the forest floor. She began searching in earnest; we were getting close. She worked around the thicket and then she dashed into the darkness.
She was gone only a moment when she hurried back to me and I saw the glee in her eyes even before she jumped up on me with her trained alert. "I found someone", she yelled at me silently! I quickly followed her as she led me to the subject who was lying under an old fallen tree covered in a camouflage tarp. At 11:11am, after just under an hour of searching, Beryl made the find and the test concluded. She became a fully certified wilderness air scent search dog that day, the first Sussex Spaniel to be trained and successfully evaluated as a search dog.
Fast forward a week, itís late on a cold Sunday night, and Iím in bed with the beginnings of a terrible cold. My husband comes into the bedroom holding my beeping pager. A lost autistic boy. This is why we have spent countless hours training. I grab my gear, load Beryl up, and off we go on our first official call-out.
Ann McGloon and Beryl are members of Josephine Countyís Search and Rescue K9 Unit located in Grants Pass, Oregon. Beryl (Ch ShootingStar West wíthe Nite, RA, CGC, SARK9) is named after the pioneer aviator, Beryl Markham, the first women to solo across the Atlantic from east-to-west.