Our thanks to Caroline and James Dunn for this great article about Search and Rescue Dogs and their amazing dog Venka. if you are not familiar with the breed, read how versatile they are here. If you are interested in teaching your dog to scent, regardless of breed or cross, follow the links at the end of the article, a tired dog is a happy dog!
Hovawarts to the rescue
By Caroline Dunn
How did I get involved with Search and Rescue (SAR) and the wonderful world of nose work? Well, it all started with a Hovawart. A hov… what!? I hear you say. No, nothing to do with the famous school for witches and wizards. Although I think I may have been struck by a spell for luck the day I came across this rare German breed.
The Hovawart is a versatile general-purpose working dog from Germany, calm in the house but full of energy outdoors. They have been known since the middle age as faithful protectors of their families, watching the livestock and their master’s property, while also being excellent at tracking criminals.
Ours is called Venka. She has been working as an operational lowland SAR dog since she qualified with NSARDA in 2007. Many people have met our bouncy girl. She will lean on you for a cuddle at any opportunity. But nobody really knows Venka until they have seen her searching. Working with a Hovawart is a fantastic experience. It is all about respect and teamwork. They work with you, not for you. They have an excellent understanding of their task, great focus, but still retain a sense of initiative.
A lot of SAR handlers work border collies, some have spaniels or labradors. We have no reason to envy them. Hovawarts are amazing working dogs. To be fair though, many canines have the potential to be great for the job. Most of the breeds from the gundog, pastoral and working groups could do it, apart from those at the very end of the scale in term of size and weight. Having said that, I knew a SAR Newfoundland and once he had picked up scent, he was unstoppable. Mongrels don’t have to stay on the ‘back bench’ either. We have a fantastic rescued boy called Red currently training in our unit, who is believed to be a collie x staffie. I will be very surprised if he does not pass with flying colours before the end of the year.
You may wonder what SAR dogs do exactly. Most use a technique called air scenting to find vulnerable missing people. They analyse scent that is being carried in the air. Many elements such as temperature, wind and terrain will affect how scent travel and a real partnership between the dogs and their handlers is necessary to ensure success. The dogs cover vast area off the lead, following directional commands from their handler and constantly checking and reviewing scent. Once they identify human scent, they will pinpoint the source, alert their handler, usually by a bark, before taking them to the location of the person.
You don’t have to join a SAR unit to have fun with your dog though. Getting started with scent work is easy. Here is a simple and fool proof method to teach a basic game at home, without any special equipment and whichever breed your dog is. You will only need a helper to get you started.
Start in a closed room, hold your dog and ask your helper to show them a ‘prize’ such as a dog biscuit or a favourite toy. If needed, they may tease by shaking it in front of your dog’s nose and talking to them in an exciting manner. Then, they should place the prize just out of sight, for instance behind a box or a piece of furniture, and take a few steps back. Release your dog saying ‘go search’. As they have seen where the prize was placed, they should go straight to it. When they do, praise them. Play with them for a short time if the prize was a toy. Repeat this once or twice, not necessarily with the prize in the same place.
The next step is slightly different. Your helper should still place the prize just out of sight. But then, instead of releasing your dog, either cover their eyes or turn them towards you so they can’t see what is happening. Your helper should then as quietly as possible move the prize a little further. Keep it simple at first, the prize should be on the floor and within a relatively short distance. When you release your dog –remember to say ‘go search’ – they should go straight to the place where they think the prize is. They will be surprised that it is not where they though and start searching. Unless the dog stops searching or looks too confused, don’t repeat the command. I see many people who think they are encouraging their dog, while they are actually distracting them. SAR dog handlers direct their dogs during searches, but they also know when to shut up and let their dog work. Well, have you ever try to concentrate on something while your colleague is speaking loudly on the phone or your teenager has put the volume up on their stereo? And dogs are not always a lot better at multi-tasking than men… Oops, now Debbie is going to tell me off for putting men off her blog. But come on guys, you know you can’t talk while you’re shaving!
Coming back to our scent game, once you have done this a few times in different locations in the room, your dog should not need to see the helper place the prize to a ‘dummy’ location first. Instead, cover your dog’s eyes or turn them towards you from the start, have your helper hide the prize and then send your dog with a “Go search”. Always use the same cue when releasing the dog.
The dog will very shortly understand the game enough so that you won’t need a helper anymore, simply place your dog in one room, close the door and hide the prize in the next room. Open the door saying ‘Go search’ and watch your dog go.
Then the limit to how far you take this game is only your imagination, you can make your dog search one room, the whole house, the garden, the dog park… If you do not always use the same prize, then make sure that the dog is shown it first and has a chance to sniff it. Otherwise, you may be surprised what your dog will find for you!
There are many more scent games you can play with your dog. Air scenting is just one aspect, then there is trailing, tracking, scent discrimination, etc… Why not check if your local club offers any scent activities or join a nose work boot camp? All dogs love scent work, it is suitable for all size and breed. Learn the techniques and take your relationship with your dog to a whole new level. People who have dogs who always seem to want to do more will get the added benefit of finally finding an activity that will tire their dog out. Scent games can even help with dogs who bark or get destructive when bored.
About Caroline Dunn
Caroline lives in Kent with her family and their hovawarts. She is the head trainer at Mind Your Dog, where she create happy relationships between pet dogs and their owners. Caroline and her husband James are also members of NSARDA Cantech, a charity which provides SAR dog teams to assist in locating vulnerable missing people.
For more information about the hovawart breed
Visit the Hovawart Club of Great Britain website
For more information about Search & Rescue dogs
For more information about Mind your Dog events, including their scent workshops
Visit the Mind Your Dog website