The Bark Alert

Sometimes it’s icing on the cake.

You’ve released your urban search and rescue dog onto the rubble pile in yet another training scenario. The location of the quarry is unknown to you and your dog. But you’ve set the dog up well with the wind, and you can tell by his body language that he’s already picked up live human scent.

He’s working hard to pinpoint the source. The way his tail is wagging let’s you know he’s almost there. There’s a soft whimper of frustration as he tries to get even closer to the still unseen helper hidden under the rough concrete and twisted rebar. But his body language lets you know he’s done it. And there it is, that unmistakable and joyous sound. It’s a loud, rhythmic, and sustained bark that let’s you, and everyone else within earshot, know that a live victim has been found. It also says, “Give me my toy”.

Sometimes it’s just a tremendous relief.

Your search dog has moved further into the abandoned building or deeper into the thick bush, and is no longer in sight. You are confident he’s still working. But it’s still quiet (too quiet?). Just as a tickle of doubt starts to nag, there it is again, that boisterous announcement. Job done. Whew!

The bark alert is the standard final indication for live finds in urban search and rescue. It may also be used in ground search and rescue and other profiles.

What’s behind that bark? The short answer is that a search dog believes that every lost person has their favourite toy. Find the missing person, bark at them, and get your reward. Just that simple.

Despite his high energy levels, SAR Dog Keji was a surprisingly quiet puppy. I had to help him find his voice. Happily, he was super motivated for his toy reward. When he realized that staring, nudging, spinning, and jumping were not prompting me to give him the reward, there was eventually a squeak of puppy frustration. And voila, the reward was delivered. More squeaks, a tentative bark, a solid bark, more than one bark, a few seconds of barking, half a minute of barking, and you eventually have a bark alert. Like most new behaviours, the bark alert is best learned through a series of short training sessions with multiple repetitions.

Most handlers teach the bark alert to their own dogs and then transition it to other people. In the early stages, a quarry may use verbal cues, body language, the reward itself, or whatever else it takes to get a new dog to bark. The reward is usually visible at the beginning of the learning process, but is eventually phased out so that the dog indicates on the quarry alone. While similar to a “speak” command, ultimately the bark alert needs to be spontaneous (not cued by the handler or quarry).

Initially, the dog is often able to reach the quarry, and the quarry delivers the reward. Over time, scenarios are introduced where the dog cannot reach the quarry and where the handler delivers the reward.

A “bark barrel” or “bark box” is a great tool to hone the bark alert and introduce searching. They are also great for building motivation.

On a final note, a big thank you to all those quarries who risk deafness and dog slobber as we build the bark alert in our dogs. We couldn’t do it without you!