Cackleberry Castle: Adolescent Selection

Kasie McGee


What in the world is a “cackleberry” and what does it have to do with Search and Rescue? Well, it really does not have any direct relationship, but I am betting a lot of associations. I know a lot of active SAR folk that also have chickens. First, a “cackleberry” is simply, a chicken egg. And while I could wax philosophical for several column inches on eggs, that is really not relevant. And the “castle” bit? That refers to what I call my newly constructed chicken coop. I keep chickens, always have. I am accustomed to fresh eggs, and find peace in simply sitting and watching and listening to my chickens going about their business. The publishers of this fine bit of industry journaling and I were discussing the details of my first article, the scope of how I view the next 11 articles, and themes I plan on running through each, so in total there is “subliminal” messaging, while I was literally building said chicken coop. One day I referenced my Cackleberry Castle, my poultry Taj Mahal, and for some reason my flippant irreverence tickled one of the publishers, and he decided that THIS would be the name of my recurring column. File any complaints with management, and leave this poor Scrabble-tile assembling drone to her work.

As promised, this month we are still discussing canine candidate selection, focused on those that prefer to skip the whole bitty puppy stage, and move right in to the dreaded adolescent bit.

There is something to be said for this option: you know what you are getting in size, if not in early experiences. I think to better prepare for this somewhat daunting task, that perhaps we should more clearly define the characteristics we NEED in a promising SAR candidate. The dog one; I covered a lot of the other end of the lead in the last article.

The first characteristic, or pair of characteristics is that the dog should be both curious, and bold. New things should be intriguing, not scary, and the dog should have the bravery to approach and investigate novel items or persons in its vicinity. Field missions may occur in strange places (to a dog) and a fear of novelty will impair the team’s ability to perform their assignment. Do NOT make excuses for a candidate; if weird items frighten the animal, it is not going to work out in the long run. Boldness, or bravery or whatever term you want to use is an indicator of confidence. A dog lacking confidence is really a handicap in the field. It will not indicate on something relevant simply because it is unsure, or take WAY too long to decide if the item is relevant. Neither scenario is useful in a real world scenario. Someone’s life could well depend on the speed of the teams determining direction of travel, that the item DID/did not belong to the subject, etc. Dithering over one small clue for an hour is not useful.

Again, when evaluating dogs for a potential search teammate, take along an experienced handler/mentor. And by that I mean someone who has successfully trained several dogs, not just one. They could be other folk’s dogs, but one hit wonders DO NOT have the experience necessary to mentor in dog selection. This requires familiarity of a broad range of canine behaviors, as well as structure. Unless someone who has successfully trained and field ONE dog has a background in other types of canine training & behavior, they will not have the knowledge to really help pair a dog and human together.

Stability is the next thing we need to see in our candidate. This animal needs to be both structurally and mentally sound. If you are looking at dogs in a rescue, or humane society, you will not have comprehensive medical backgrounding. You will have  basic vaccines and a quick physical exam on intake. If you find a dog in one of these situations, make sure you can return them contingent upon a deeper veterinary exam, including lab work, fecal exam and hip radiographs. While you are not seeking OFA certifications, ANY vet worth their salt should be able to look at those hips and identify whether the dog is sound enough to work. It takes on average 1 ½ to 2 years of training to certify a dog to a fieldable level, and that is a LOT of work to put in for a dog that cannot stay sound in the field, or one that has undiagnosed underlying medical issues. Evaluating the mental stability is on you and whatever experienced folks you have on your team. Does the dog lose its marbles over lights, loud noises, cats, toys, etc.? Does it obsess over GETTING at any of these? You want a dog that may not like any of these things, may like some of them okay,  but is sensible about its reactions to them. Working a thunder-phobic dog where there are daily storms or firing ranges is simply not going to happen. Dog will panic and leave the field. Not that I am advocating working in a thunderstorm, but I have been caught in my fair share.

Your candidate should exhibit a fairly strong play drive, as that is generally WHY the dog works. Along with a solid prey drive (intensity in hunting behaviors), play drive is where we will be “paying” for the work. Combined, the successful dog will love the job, it will be intrinsically fun with the added bonus of an extrinsic reward at the end of a good job well done. Successful training makes a game of the search, and the dog should choose that THIS game is the best ever. Lower play drive dogs simply do not always want to do the job, and that makes for an unreliable partner.

“Want to” is a huge part of an effective search dog, but physical fitness is also critical. A Dachshund may WANT to go critter hunting, but those golf-pencil legs somewhat limit his hunting range, and we won’t go into the disc disease these dogs are prone to. On the average all-day sort of search for say a missing hiker, it is not uncommon  for the handler to cover 5 or more miles in rugged terrain, usually at altitude, and we all know the air scent dog may easily double or triple that. A trailing dog will be more in line with what the handler covers, since they are on a long line. That should illustrate the critical importance that BOTH dog and handler need to be fit. So, a fitness regime in areas you may routinely be expected to search should be part of your weekly training procedures. A new dog may not be in top form yet, so like with humans, there needs to be a sensible progressive fitness plan put in place to build up the dog’s ability to work long hours in easy and difficult terrain in their expected fielding environments.

The necessity of a strong prey drive is the main reason that sporting, herding, scent hound and some of the working breeds make the most successful search dogs. As I stated in the last article, Spitz-derived (Northern) breeds like Huskies, Malamutes, Finish Spitzes, some of the pointy eared hound breeds like Canaan dogs, Ibizan Hounds, and other sight hounds, etc. do NOT make viable candidates because of the characteristics that they were developed to embody. These dogs were created to work independently from their humans, to cover great distances at speed, and do so with little to no input from a handler in the execution of their task. Searching requires the dog and humans to work as a team, each providing part of the job at hand. I may not be able to smell my upper lip, but I can operate a radio, and think proactively to place my dog in a position he will be most likely to pick up target scent if it is there. He on the other hand needs to be able to tell me whether one of the zillions of particles of odor he can detect is what he understands we need to find, to exclusion of anything more interesting. This requires a dog absolutely willing to work WITH his/her human; and independent dog will not subvert things that interest/attract him/her, they just do not. This is why the sporting, herding and [scent] hounds far out perform other breeds in this field. They have been selected for eons exactly for that as one of their traits.

A small caveat about scent hounds: They may love their humans when not working, but once they get a scent, that takes precedence over All Other Things. This is why Bloodhounds are nearly ALWAYS worked on a trailing line, with the scent in their nose, they literally do not HEAR you trying to get them to focus on you, to come. Every single one of my working hounds had/has lovely recalls, until they were in scent. And be VERY aware of the purpose any particular breed of hound was developed for and that specific working style. Not all were developed to trail scent on or near the ground. Coon hounds were created to work off of air scent, and in a pack. Have either of those 2 items in place, and YOU are a mere irritant. It is difficult to work an airscent dog on line (trees, shrubs, etc.), and a nightmare in an urban area, as they follow SCENT, and the devil take the cars on the roads. I personally do not wish to have my dog walk me onto a busy highway just because that is where the scent happens to be going. I have had one of my hounds walk me into the Arkansas River; that was enough fun. To be fair, our subject was later found downstream, but hiking back to the truck in sopping wet gear is not…fun.

This brings us back to candidate selection. You have found a likely dog, from one of the aforementioned groups, and you want to see if he/she will make a good SAR candidate.

Here again is where either your mentor, or an experienced K9 handler is necessary to help you determine if the dog has what it takes. You will need to test FOR these characteristics: sound sensitivity, curiosity, boldness, mental stability, and of course physical health. Do NOT expect rescue operators to have an inkling of what a good SAR candidate might look like. They like to think they do, but they do not. Bless them for the service to the community they do provide, but they should not be helping you select a working partner. Obviously, your veterinarian will need to do the medical screening, but it is on you and your support folsk to help you select the dog’s other characteristics.

Is the dog nosy? Lay out a couple duffle bags with some random items in them, maybe a treat, too. See how the dog responds to these. While the dog is exploring the bags, drop something loudly (a chair, a metal bowl, a bunch of clattery items, etc.). Does the dog flip out and leave? Does it jump, then orient towards the disturbance? Does it jump, orient to the disturbance, then approach the item? It is fair to be startled. It is NOT useful to be frightened by whatever made the sound. 

How does this dog respond to new people? The vet and his/her staff, the hospital environment? Children at the park? People running? People in wheelchairs, with canes, etc.? How does the dog handle being on a leash? Has it been leash trained or not (this is not a rule out; leash training is easy, it is the dog’s reaction to its control being limited that we are considering here). Does the dog check in with you periodically, wanting to be sure you are still there/happy, or does it go about its own agenda Sniffing All the Things? While we DO want a dog that is nosy, it also should be wanting to connect with the human in some way; this indicates to a certain degree the dog’s willingness to work cooperatively. Both too little and too much are rule-outs. A dog that has little to no self-control when meeting new dogs, humans or items is just as much of a problem for SAR as the dog that is too fearful and tries to leave. Enthusiasm, yes; over enthusiasm to the point of being manic is detrimental. This indicates a dog that is not mentally stable, lacking in self-control. Again, this is where an experienced person may be able to sort the wheat from the chaff: is the dog extremely enthused, or simply lacking any taught manners, and this is the strategy it uses to connect with humans. The differences are subtle, and you MUST be able to recognize them. If you cannot, your “help” should.

Good luck, and happy hunting. I know I have helped countless folks find their dog, and many changed their mind and selected a puppy from a kennel that bred working dogs after seeing many older candidates fail. The chances are better with a purpose-bred puppy that taking chances on an older one. At least with the puppy, you get to control the environment, and teach it exactly what you need it to know about the world and its place there. That said, I have seen “rescued” dogs become highly successful, reliable search dogs, too. Until next month, my friends. For now, I have a fluffy delicious omelet calling my name!

Kasie McGee has been actively involved in K9 Search and Rescue since the early 90s. She has handled many Bloodhounds and multiple Border Collies at various levels, with dogs certified in human remains, trailing, articles and air scent work. She comes into SAR from the training the dog to do this job point of view. Many people come into it from military or law enforcement, and while her family is chock full of ALL those people, she herself did not serve. Her professional preparation include an MS in Animal Science involving environmental enrichment and learning theory, and an MS in Neuropathophysiology. She also holds Bachelors in Biology and in English, and her “day job” is teaching. For the past few years she has specialized in teaching Gifted students that also have disabilities, and most recently teaching middle school and high school science. She has owned and bred Border Collies since 1970, training them to work on the farm, and later in herding trials. She became interested in search work after reading Syrotuk’s work, challenged by the concept of training different tasks while still in a human-canine partnership. She sought out ANYONE local to her to help her learn more about this, and ended up working with law enforcement canine handlers with Bloodhounds. In her career in SAR, she has mentored many new handlers, guiding them through dog selection, training issues, learning objectives and skill maintenance.
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