How to Read a Dog
Keep in mind that this training is for in the event of a disaster or emergency situation in your own home which could never happen, therefore there is no pressure on you to or your dog to perform these lessons to high expectations.
In other words, take it easy, relax and let your dog do the work as you follow your dog and have fun. Maintaining a causal attitude and tone will work much better with this type of training then does a firm or obedience type of military.
As your dog works to find a lost person during a disaster you’ll be reading your dog for clues that indicate what your dog finds along the route, such as; tail held high and wagging means the dog is getting close to the person.
Or, if your dog has their nose to the ground while working slowly this may mean the trail is many hours old requiring the dog to pay more attention then the free spirited tail wagging of a nearby find.
Each dog is different in how they show their findings or clues which is why each dog and handler team must undergo certification. If a handler changes dogs they must learn how to read the new dog and certification will prove they do understand the dog.
Every handler must watch each dog they work with to be able to read the dog and as you watch your dog, look for any sign your dog gives you to what the find along the way.
The dog working an air scent will not go on the same path as the person does so never scold your dog if they do not go on the person’s exact path to find the person.
Only in tracking competitions do dogs have to stay directly on the person’s foot prints or path of travel and we are not competing we are saving lives there is a big difference.
The dog is always right and when a dog fails to find what they are looking for 99% of the time the handler has not read the dog and mistaken that the dog failed so the handler stops the dog.
If you dog stops on a trail and looks at you for direction or in question then look around because they are trying to tell you something, they are not quitting. Usual the handler mistakes this sign as the dog losing the trail or scent path of the person they seek when that is not what the dog is indicating.
For instance, one time Incredible Sue and I were looking for a lost elderly man with about 500 other search members. About 5 of us were searching a barn yard that had a blackberry patch next to the corral. Sue took me to the blackberry patch and she went to one of the bushes then used her nose to bump a bunch of the berries that were hanging on the bush. I had never seen her to this before.
At first I thought she was hungry or thirsty but she did not try to eat the berries. I paid attention to her to see what she was trying to tell me. I asked her what it was and to “show me”, she sat down which is her indication she found something. Then she bumped the berries again. I told her okay, now what. She got up and went to another bush and did the same thing and did this over again at another bush.
I watched her in amazement as it dawned on me the elderly man who had been missing 3 days must have been in this berry patch eating berries. He would defiantly have been hungry by then.
The other rescuers and I discussed what Sue was doing and agreed it sure looked like she was telling us this then we radioed the base camp to ask them to ask a family member if the man knew of this berry patch and he did. He was found a few days later not far from this berry patch after Sue and I did a midnight search on day 5 of his disappearance.
Always watch the dog and ask the dog to show you then let the dog show you. You do not show the dog where to go, they show you and this a complete opposite of what we teach our dogs in obedience and manners.
In search and rescue work we have to trust our dogs unconditionally and is one of the hardest things to learn. I always remind myself that my dog knows his nose better then I do therefore I do not interfere.
Another example of reading a dog would be when Sue and I were searching along a highway and she picked up a nice clean hanky that was in our route of travel, she carried this by her little front teeth like it was delicate then she dropped it.
I told the officer with me that the hanky must of belong to the person we were looking for because otherwise she would not of noticed the cloth laying on the roadside. He left to confirm the hanky with the family as belonging to the lost person. Sue was right again.
Never underestimate your dog.
The weather can make a dog work entirely different then we expect so always follow your dog and let them go to the person on their own without any interference from you.
No coaching the dog unless the dog just does understand what it is you are looking for and that is only when you first start training.
If your dog has found a person who has hidden a few times and then the dog refuses to look for you the dog is either bored which can lead to burn out. Or, the dog knows where the person is and you are missing the clue.
If your dog goes in a completely different direction ignoring the person or what you ask them to do then do the lesson again being sure not to leave out a step which can confuse the dog.
If the dog fails again to respond by searching for the person then I would make sure the person was honest in how they hid and where they hid. Then start at the beginning lesson again until you learn to read what your dog is telling you.
You and your dog will learn to work as a team with practice and after many lessons once or twice a week. A bond will develop where communication is very clear between you and your dog.
You will learn from your dog by reading them how they communicate with you through the tracking leash, body language and clues.
A wagging tail means what? Usually they are hot on the trail.
A tail that suddenly goes down means they came to a spot they have to work out or figure out like a puzzle. This spot is where a scent pool may have been left when the person sat down.
This could also be a spot where another dog happened to pee. Only after a few training sessions will you be able to tell the difference by learning to read your dog.
If this spot is where another dog peed, most likely your dog will only smell it and then relieve themselves at the spot too and then go back to looking for the person or on the trail.
However, if this is a scent pool of the person you are looking for the dog may smell more deeply and show more interest or different interest in this spot and work a one or two ft area that is heavy with the scent of the person.
Let your dog do the puzzle because you will never be able to use your nose to do this scent puzzle. Once the dog figured out which way the person exited the pool of scent they will lead you on the next leg of the route.
Dogs that are hot, tired and thirsty from working a long trail may go off the route if they smell water. Sue often did this in the summer heat. I would let her go for a swim in a creek if she wanted to because I knew as soon as she was cooled off she would hop back onto her trail. Even if the creek was down the road the opposite direction she would go back to where she cut off to find water and resume the search.
Trust your dog and learn to read him like a book.