The Mid-South Search & Rescue Dog Association (MSSARDA), a North Mississippi-based non-profit organization, welcomed visitors from Alabama’s Red Mountain Search Dog Association (RMSDA) to Holly Springs in late April, when search and rescue canine teams from both organizations came together to share training exercises designed to improve handler skills and canine performance.
Training took place in locations in and around Holly Springs, from the Depot district to the Marshall County Fairgrounds, Roads and Bridges compound, and the Strawberry Plains Audubon Center.
Representatives from the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office and the Collierville Police Dept. were present for the initial orientation, with Deputy Mark Kaply welcoming the visitors, and Lt. Jeff Dwyer, leader of the CPD STAR Tracking Team, instructing field exercises in visual tracking and assessing navigation and map skills.
Experienced handlers on the MSSARDA team demonstrated aspects of K9 skills in disciplines the Red Mountain team are considering adding to their capabilities: MSSARDA’s Ginny Hull Bell of Collierville, who is also a member of Tennessee Task Force One, shared insights on training dogs to be mindful of their footing on unstable surfaces, and explained methods of teaching balance and confidence on collapsed structures.
Dogs unfamiliar with building search enjoyed opportunities to work in dark conditions inside warehouses where restricted air movement offered new and different scent challenges explained by Judy Otto, MSSARDA’s Training Director.
Exercises in urban mantrailing in Holly Springs were led by Lisa Hiatt-Todd of Ashland with bloodhound Ember, while a mixed-surface trail leading to a subject concealed inside a schoolbus was demonstrated by Billy Miller of Corinth with bloodhound Gus.
Wilderness mantrailing and tracking exercises were overseen by Kathy Webb of Eads, Tenn., with German shepherds Kona and Nikki.
The visiting air scenting dog teams also had the opportunity to work problems featuring victims concealed in heavy equipment and materials used for street and road maintenance. In the process, they were able to address and fine-tune issues related to each dog’s alert and motivation level with guidance from Bell and Otto, who demonstrated with K9 Valiant, a dog certified in wilderness area search and article search.
Exercises in human remains detection (HRD) were also performed by Hiatt-Todd with K9 Dash and Bell with K9 Pace, while Webb’s HRD-trainee Moxie demonstrated drills and exercises useful in the early training of cadaver dogs.
Sunday’s day of problem-solving at Strawberry Plains allowed visiting K9 team members to practice advanced area search problems, while beginning dogs practiced drive-building runaways. Visitors also shared the opportunity to work additional HRD and mantrailing problems under the supervision of MSSARDA handlers.
“There’s never an end to learning,” Otto says. “Every dog, every exercise, every training situation is different and offers learning opportunities to those who are paying attention. Even an experienced and competent search dog always has more to learn—and to re-learn, since, like humans, they forget skills they don’t use often. And yes, dogs can get bored and lose interest if they are not challenged with fresh and original problems!”
The human-canine partnership is an essential bond that depends on two-way communication, and the ability to “read one’s dog” improves with practice and guidance, she explains. Recognizing from his body language if your dog is confused, uncertain, working or just ‘crittering’—and knowing when he needs direction from his handler to put his nose in the right place—is essential. Knowing when and how to help and encourage the dog, and when to keep quiet and allow the dog to lead and develop leadership confidence –is a skill SAR K9 handlers continually hone.
“Working with groups like Red Mountain is invaluable for us—we learn from each other, comparing insights, experiences, and fresh perspectives, and sharing training tips and techniques that other handlers and other dogs have found helpful. Talking about what we do and why, makes us aware of what we need to improve. We look forward to future shared training opportunities with the dedicated folks on the Red Mountain team and their impressive dogs.”
For more information about MSSARDA and opportunities to support their local SAR K9 work, visit www.mssarda.org or contact Judy Otto at 662-252-1004.