Go Where the Dog Goes
By Certified Trainer Adam Slater
How many times have you assisted on a canine track as a cover officer, or even as a handler, and arrived at either water, thick mud, blackberries etc.? The canine wants to cross the hazard, but the handler or cover officer comes up with a reason why the suspect or missing person, “Did not go that way.” I believe the canine team will have increased success the moment this line of thinking is jettisoned. It has no place in working a tracking canine. Several handlers lay the ground work with handler laid tracks, only to, “Not trust the dog” when the canine wants to cross a hazard in a live application.
If you are reading this with little canine tracking experience, you may ask, “Why would a handler do that?” The answer is simple. People, in general, don’t like to get wet, dirty, or potentially have to crawl on all fours to get through areas the canine may be leading them. I am here to tell you when a potential suspect runs from the police they do not say to themselves, “Oh, some water I don’t want to get wet.” No, they say, “Yes! Water! I bet the Cops won’t go through that!” Remember folks, most of the individuals you are tracking are facing serious jail time or even prison. They already have some awesome motivation to get away and will do anything it takes to do so. If you utilize your tracking canine for search and rescue applications, remember people who become disoriented, hypothermic or have dementia will do and cross things which often won’t make sense to you. Be willing to think outside of the box.
Work with your dog as a team! The dog works hard for you during training, you need to work hard for it on a live track. Be willing to go through the non-glamorous areas if it is what the track calls for. Below I will discuss some ideas and things I have found helpful when dealing with hazards.
TRUST THE DOG
Simply said, Trust the dog! Now am I saying don’t use your brain? Absolutely not! That is why the canine and you are a certified team. When I track with Odin my mind works very much like a GPS you might find in your car. Let’s say we are in an open field tracking northbound and I see a tree about fifty yards in front of me. This would be the point I am navigating to on my GPS, or where I believe the suspect may be hiding after my fast visual check of the area and direction we are tracking. Then the canine snaps his head to the left in the middle of this field and begins tracking hard to the west. The GPS would say what? That’s right, “Recalculating route.” My mind does the same thing. I recalculate the direction we are tracking and new possible locations the suspect can be hiding. This is a continual process during the track. By doing this, not only are you trusting the dog, you are actively observing the negatives, and “Going with the track.” This is helpful as you come to a hazard!
Now let’s say you just saw the negative and have changed direction. You see an eight-foot-wide creek in front of you with no way to pass, without going through. The canine tracks directly to the creek and then tries to jump in! Why would you not cross the creek? Remember above, something I said about people not wanting to get dirty or wet? Your mind has already updated and knows the suspect’s potential hiding location is in or on the other side of the creek. If you don’t follow the dog in, you are choosing to not trust the dog, or yourself. If it’s a matter of having questions about the dog being “on Track”, simply process the last area you knew you were on track prior to the hazard. Just think of it this way. Would you have even made it to the hazard if you were not on track? Don’t cheat yourself, or your partner. Be willing to cross the hazard to make the find!
TRAIN FOR THE HAZARD
Training for the hazard does not have to be complicated. I would suggest you begin by utilizing handler laid tracks. For an example, if you want your canine to enter a blackberry bush, place the reward on the other side of the bush. Cross through the blackberries at a location where you and the canine have to go through the blackberries to find the reward. Make sure you motivate the canine, using modeling behavior if the canine doesn’t want to go into the bush. Get on all fours and crawl through the bush. If he is “on track”, go with him. Make sure you actually crawled through the bush the first time as the scent path needs to be present. This may not be enjoyable for you, the handler, as you have to go through the blackberry bush twice. (Once when you lay the track and once when you track it) However, the first time Odin located an armed suspect hiding in the middle of a large blackberry bush and did not hesitate going directly after the individual, I found it totally worth the effort.
The same can, and should, be done for any hazard you want the canine to cross. Water, mud, difficult terrain etc. I normally train each of these areas on a short handler laid track. This is important as it allows you to observe the canine’s behavior. When he reaches the hazard, does he give a negative? Hesitate to enter? Attempt to find a different way around? Or does he just jump right in? After you have trained for particular hazards with handler laid tracks, find a decoy who is willing to cross and enter the same type of hazards, placing a known track. I have found this increases Odin’s drive when he crosses the hazards and finds a decoy hiding on the other side. Once you have seen your canine’s demeanor on these training tracks, as it pertains to hazards, you should have no doubt in your mind about when and why to cross them during a live track.
BUY GEAR FOR THE PURPOSE
We have really neat and expensive gear we buy as police officers. Most of us spend several hundred dollars a year on items like: guns, flashlights, boots, duty gear, etc. When I first started my canine career I had the $200 boots and some nicely maintained duty gear. That didn’t last long. My first several tracks seemed to always to take me through skunk cabbage, waist deep mud, and water. I ruined three pairs of these boots within two months of being home. On the flip side of this, Neeko and I had already captured three suspects due to being willing to cross these areas. I quickly determined if I was going to continue on this path, I needed to adjust the gear I was using. I began purchasing boots from a local big box store for $20 a pair, a nice change from the $200 I was spending. I also began buying batting gloves at $15 a pair, instead of the $50 law enforcement gloves, which I had destroyed after two tracks. I spoke with my administration and they allowed me to begin wearing a tactical vest for canine duties, which was much easier to clean. Now when I go through thick mud, water or other areas, I simply throw away the boots or gloves if they are too caked with mud or damaged to salvage. I always have a new pair of boots / gloves at home waiting for me. This is important, as most of us have experienced a time when we are on track and we see water and think, “I only have one pair of boots and I don’t want to get them wet.” This could be the difference of catching, or not catching, the suspect or finding the missing person, all because we don’t want to get our feet muddy or wet. I now budget for boots like groceries. I understand this is another expense for most of us, but if you want to find suspects / missing people without hazards getting in the way, I find it to be an acceptable expense.
GO GET EM
No matter what happens, do the best your team can do! Think like the missing person / suspect would think. If you are being called to deploy, it is because someone needs to be found. If you are meant to take the hard road, take the hard road. Not only will you feel awesome about it when you find the missing person / suspect, you will be very excited you followed your training and trusted your dog! You have prepared for this moment, now go find them. Don’t be restrained by anything. Work as one with your partner and your extended team to win the day!