Cackleberry Corner: A Word on Mentorship

Kasie McGee

Mentor image

1. An experienced and trusted adviser.

If you have been reading my articles so far, you have to be aware that I am a firm believer in mentoring, both as the mentor and the mentee. I believe that we ALWAYS need mentoring, no matter how long we have been in a field, or how new we are to it. I have learned from people that have 30, 40, and 50 years of experience, and I have learned from a small child. A mentor may be fluid and just in that moment, or someone you go to for years. You may mentor that person in something YOU are an expert in, and they may provide guidance in something to which you are new and learning. I believe this holds true for any endeavor we pursue in life, be it our hobbies, our jobs or our passions.

In search and rescue, you may have many mentors. The slightly nerdy group of older folks who literally discuss bandwidth and radio frequencies for pleasure (and for HOURS)? Those who compare different manufacturers, and have 2700 radios and battery packs charged and ready to go at any time may be exactly who you need when considering the purchase of a personal communication device (or GPS) for your activities on your team. Those rock jocks who are ALWAYS dangling by their pinkies off of walls that would terrify most (sane) folks can probably help you with technique, gear, and rigging systems quickly. Especially if you will need to know how to do this in the dark, while it snows, on a slope, of course, and to compensate for only two additional people to be “mules.” Those guys that geek out at Plans, MOUs, and sourcing for Ops; can help you determine which specific 200 forms you need to fill out for every mission and when the hot food will likely show up at command (if they feel like sharing that intel).

In the dog group, one hopes that there is SOMEONE who has a depth of knowledge of canine behavior and structure, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of dogs in general as search tools. From selecting a likely puppy as a SAR candidate to guiding new teams through all the training stages, a good mentor is irreplaceable. And this may not be all one person. If you are fortunate enough to be on a fairly large team, there may be someone who has a strong background in canine health issues, including feeding, preventative medical concerns for your area, and normal everyday maintenance of a dog. There maybe someone else who has been training SAR dogs for a long time in all disciplines, or maybe only in one. Perhaps there will be someone who trains in one, but no one in what YOUR dog is going to do. Some concepts will apply across the board, but some will be specific to specific disciplines. If you are bringing a much-needed discipline to your team, perhaps you won’t have that “content area” mentor on the team, but someone further away that you can confer with. Work with the experienced people on your team and this other person to formulate a training program for you and your dog. Set up check-ins, keep detailed training records (video, too, if you have a surplus of folks that can do this for you), and use these resources when you confer so that hopefully problems are caught early and redirected. 

The most important thing you can do is LISTEN to your mentors, even if you do not like what they are telling you. Listen. Yes, you can verify, get a 2nd opinion, as long as you are genuinely looking for a second opinion and not just for someone to tell you what you WANT to hear. The quickest way to shut down a valuable mentorship is to constantly be the “Yeah, but…” person. I am well aware of how limited the time is that is available to me both for those I mentor and to also train my own dogs. Someone who wastes my time will be uninvited to any of it very quickly. If I tell you your dog is unfit for any reason for this job, I do not say that to hurt your feelings. I say that because the mission we accept by training these dogs for this job is the understanding that someone’s LIFE will at some point depend on us finding them quickly and skillfully; denial has no place in this objective.

So, I have sold you on the idea, how do you go about FINDING a solid mentor? Some relationships may occur organically, as you meet at canine training, and people sort out observers, subjects, trackers, etc. Some may be assigned; you have a dog that is trailing, and this is our trailing dog expert, so you will start with them… this may grow into a long-term mentorship, or it may not. As a mentee, I took to heart that I must listen to my mentor. I also had 4011 questions early in my canine career, trying to absorb ALL the information all at once. Obviously, this does not work; you have to learn things a piece at a time and build on that foundation. You cannot understand some concepts if you do not have basic behavior understanding, and recognize the basic body language of the dog and what it conveys. Communicating BACK to your dog effectively takes time and the building of trust, as well as the development of line-handling skills. Watching new trailing people attempting to work their dog on a heavy nylon long line, I know that they cannot be communicating clearly, as the line is not responsive enough. I can TELL them all day long, but until that person begins to develop a little skill correctly reading their dog’s body language and then having them work the dog on a light biothane long line, they are not going to believe you. Foundations are critical, and growth has to happen based on what is NOW understood, to make space for learning the next thing. A good mentor will understand this and have patience for the development of these skills in both the handler and the dog. There is no substitute for these lessons. The more a new handler makes excuses and stubbornly clings to incorrect beliefs, the longer the learning and growth will take to occur.

Your new mentor should have several years of experience both in SAR, and in the training and handling of SAR dogs. They will most likely have had more than one dog themselves and have helped with many other K9 teams. They should be focused on continually improving their own understanding and skills, keeping up to date on current practices, reading research articles, and attending seminars. They may also be presenters at field trainings and seminars themselves. Do not forget 99% of search dogs are owner-handled and trained. Everyone is donating their time and resources; a sign of professionalism is someone that is continually striving to stay up to date with best practices and looking for mentorship themselves occasionally. I have met several “expert” dog handlers who are the first to tout their experience and skill. They often charge for their “services” or, in some way, create an income stream based on their SAR expertise. If a K9 handler is discussing the many, many finds he/she and their dog have had, be skeptical. Do some research. Most SAR K9s do not ever find a person in their entire career. Maybe they have had a few finds, but most likely, they have successfully told us where the subject was NOT or pointed the tracking team in the correct direction. If a handler is claiming a ton of live (or dead) finds, they are, at best, exaggerating. This is NOT the mentor for you!

Another way to find mentoring is through networking. Attend those seminars, even just as an audit without a dog. Learn from people already doing this job, THEN get your dog. The more you know, the better your selection criteria are going to be. Understand that even with a mentor, you and your dog are learning at the same time, and this is not the ideal situation. You ARE going to make mistakes. You ARE going to mess up your dog in some ways. Having a mentor, and listening to that person or persons will help minimize these. You will be BETTER with the next dog, but it will also be different than that first one, so there is still a lot to learn. I have been in this field for <-> decades, and there is ALWAYS something new to figure out. I gladly share with others so we can try to figure it out together. 

Be open, as you really never know what you might learn from someone. I watched a TikTok this morning a man had posted, where he explained about this homeless guy he has seen around his town for years. He says he occasionally gives the guy money or buys him a meal. The homeless man has a dog (yes, of course, it is a pit bull), and the poster asked him WHY. Not to be mean or rude, just why, in his circumstances, he decided having a dog was important. The homeless man said that first, his dog eats before he does, ALWAYS. If there is only enough for one, he makes sure that that dog gets it, and he will go without. The dog was happy and looked clean and healthy, while the homeless man looked, as one would expect, a little rough. The homeless man told the poster that that dog was the ONLY being on earth that did not judge him, ever—just looked at him with love and acceptance. Because of that, he felt the dog deserved every good thing that came their way and deserved it FIRST. 

I do not know if the mentor in this scenario is the poster who relayed the information, the homeless man who is living it, or, really, the dog. I do know that there is something profound in this story, and I am not too proud to accept the lesson. We do not deserve the dogs we have, and they deserve the best of US. To that end, find a mentor, be a mentor, and never stop.

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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