While training my trailing and wilderness dogs with several canine handlers
in search and rescue a couple of years ago, one novice handler who had a young dog he was trying out questioned me sarcastically,
“Are you always such a cheerleader?” I found the comment not as much as plain rude, but more of a reflection on
him as a trainer; not very encouraging.
In response to the man’s question; yes. A mentor of others, when teaching canine handlers and flankers in the search
and rescue unit, must create and maintain a positive training environment or culture. If our canine units are to be acknowledged
as valuable assets to search and rescue teams across the nation, it is necessary that our canine team leaders create an environment
that delineates the objectives, purpose and values of the team within the entire search and rescue unit. So, in response to
the new canine member’s comment, yes; I encourage and motivate other canine handlers when they ask me to assist in their
training. I am positive and uplifting, and with this attitude, I show that I value the team members who work with me as part
of an important team.
There may be the handler
who has some information to share, an idea that they implemented on the field that worked and they want to demonstrate to
the team. Another member might reveal that a particular technique was not so successful. We review the practice session
logs and discuss the process and outcomes and try again together or realize that for this particular canine, the objective
was not appropriate.
Establishing a training
environment that respects every member’s input creates a strong unit, one that will last. When the mentor opens up the
dialogue and training techniques with the other team members, and relays the idea that there are no training techniques to
be guarded and boarded up, to be revealed only by the team leader, the canine handlers feel that they are part of the learning/training
process. I often tell the canine handlers in our unit to set up training sessions. They organize the area, set up the problems
and lead the evaluation of each dog after the trailing runs are complete. Several members other than me have organized canine
training sessions that incorporate the mounted, ATV, man-tracking units and the IC.
President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “We need leaders of inspired idealism, leaders to whom are granted great visions,
who dream greatly and strive to make their dreams come true; who can kindle the people with the fire from their own burning
souls.” So yes, be a “cheerleader,” but more importantly, be a motivator by listening to your teammates,
encourage them while training and empower them with the confidence to take over the lead, if you will, and organize training
sessions. The overall training climate will be cohesive and will permeate throughout the search and rescue organization.
How can you be a mentor to your canine handler teammates in search and rescue or in law enforcement?
1. Get dirty. Be a complete part of the team. Some coaches, teachers or leaders of organizations in general stand on
the field or in the booth directing the activity. As a mentor, you have to model. For example, don’t just tell your
canine teammate to hook up their dog and go find a person hiding 100m away for a beginning sight run trail. Actually, hook
up your dog and physically demonstrate how to conduct a proper sight run exercise with your teammate following, or flanking.
2. Discuss and provide input. After
you have demonstrated proper trailing technique for a beginning sight run exercise above, talk about basic handling skills
that you did and that your student observed. Field questions and provide detailed examples of the how to do something. For
example, as basic as it may seem to you, handling a long line takes finesse, like a fisherman letting line out and reeling
line in loosely through the fingers while working. Explain to your teammate how to hold the long line and while you are trailing,
show them how you work the line through your hands and fingers. (You must remember, for some people, this is a tough skill
to master; to run, think and work that line simultaneously may take months to develop).
3. Be patient. As a teacher and mentor, you must exert patience. We all develop our skills at different rates. Have
expectations for your student handler and canine team that are appropriate for their abilities. It would be a great idea to
develop a goals sheet for your team members. In this way, a specific milestone will be reached by a certain date. This plan
for each student prevents overwhelm and may in fact help reduce the drop -out rate we observe with canine handlers. The student
also needs to realize that canine handling takes time to develop; it cannot be rushed. Canine handlers must practice several
times per week. Canine handlers must certify and maintain annual certification. Having achievable goals or milestones each
week, gives the novice handler especially, one thing to work on. I have found a greater rate of success and sustainability
with handlers who realize that training a canine is a long-term process, a step-by-step commitment. So have achievable goals
each week for your student handler.
As a teacher/mentor, you must motivate your team members with encouragement and praise. For me, this is the key to a successful
team. A handler and his or her canine partner will advance in development in any discipline; trailing, wilderness, narcotics,
HRD, therapy, or obedience with encouragement and praise. If a teacher/mentor consistently pushes the student/handler without
encouraging or praising, they may become overwhelmed, discouraged and quit. Even a handler who is doing well, without encouragement
and praise may feel undervalued and useless. So, mentor teachers; give your student handlers lots of praise. Encourage even
the smallest of achievements. “Excellent line handling; I like how you held it loosely through your fingers with your
index and thumb like a circle. Cool!” Some comment such as this will be internalized and remembered for the next session.
You are also building a future teacher/mentor. You have now given your student a tool to pass on to another colleague.
5. Don’t Forget the Canine: Handlers need praise, true. However, don’t forget to encourage the dog. For
some people, like me, praising my canine partner is first and foremost. On the trail, I bridge with, “Good, go”
when my dog is hot on the trail, when he/she has picked up scent after losing it, when he/she has paused, checked to throw
a negative and move on. Praise comes at the end when my canine has found the missing person. I believe in rewarding the tiniest
of achievements, because that is where confidence is built. Build a strong dog by praising and rewarding in a timely manner.
Be quick so you don’t lose the moment. It will do you or your canine partner no good to praise him or her for finding
the trail five minutes later. Praise consistently and quickly. Now, you will have the motivation and excitement for the next
6. Delegate: Many teachers or leaders feel that they have
guarded trade secrets that cannot be shared with others in their field. Well think about it; unless you have developed some
idea completely on your own, we all have created lessons, ways of doing something, inventions because of some part, idea,
or way that we saw work or fail, right? No man is an island. As a community of canine handlers, share your knowledge and surround
yourself with other handlers who offer a different take on training. There are great ideas out there on how to train in canine
disciplines. So take a bit here, use what works for you, but let others on your team offer their suggestions and ideas as
well. As a team, use them all, maybe some, and don’t use what doesn’t work for you. The key is to be open,
and let all handlers on your team utilize their strengths and share their techniques and observations. In this manner, all
ideas are on the table. What works for one person and canine may not work for the other, but realize that is how it is and
be flexible. Again, as a mentor, you are passing on leadership to other members of your team, so they can carry on when you
So cheer away and kindle that training spirit!