Do as I say, not as I do…

They say confession is good for the soul. So, here’s a short story that illustrates one small step in my personal journey of learning to “trust the dog”. One which I regularly use to demonstrate the concept, and which is often greeted by nods of recognition from other handlers.

Let’s set the stage. In a remote provincial park in Manitoba the Canadian armed forces runs a survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE) school for military pilots and other aircraft crew (who knew?). One of the exercises is a scenario in which crews of two have crash landed in enemy territory and must make their way on foot to a series of check points, while evading capture by the dreaded Hunter Force. Police and SAR dog handlers are invited to participate by either tracking the crews from their “crash site” or by searching for them as they make their way to their pick up points. It’s a good lesson for the aircraft crews and a great opportunity for the dog teams, although the combination of thick vegetation, wet ground, and absolute darkness can make you question the wisdom of your decision. It’s like fun, but different…

Now a word or two about SAR Dog Keji. He is a highly motivated, well trained, and experienced search dog. He works hard, plays hard, eats hard, sleeps hard – you get the idea. And in a training or deployment situation, he comes out of the vehicle hard – working as soon as his feet hit the ground.

We’d had a successful track the night before, “capturing” two crew members about a kilometre from their “crash site”. After a couple of hours of sleep we were back the next morning driving down a woods road to position ourselves to intercept more crews as they made their way to their pick up points. I parked the vehicle at a gate, sent a couple of texts, and got myself organized at a leisurely pace. My plan was to search the area off a trail that headed south from the road.

As I let the dog out of the vehicle, I turned and started to walk south to the area I planned to search. The dog looked at me and headed north across the road. I called him back and turned to head south again, patiently explaining that we were going this way. He made it almost back to me, but then turned again and headed north across the road. I started to call him again – half heartedly this time – as a small, dim lightbulb was starting to turn on somewhere in the back of what passes for my brain. I shut up and followed the dog. The two crew members were hidden on a small hill about fifty metres north of the road and within sight of our vehicle. Sigh. Good dog…

It was a short, valuable, and somewhat embarrassing lesson that I will never forget. Thanks again Keji.