Our disaster site is small but within the required size according to the national standard. Over the years we have added as much rubble as we dared until we were told by council, 'no more.'
As I wrote in the blog whilst in Switzerland, one of the training difficulties we have in Australia is the dearth of proper disaster sites. The South Australian task force has a very good one at Angle Park where we do our operational testing, but for regular training here in Melbourne, we do not have adequate facilities. This is especially so in respect to basements and tunnels. Dogs must learn to go down into the dark to follow the human scent cone as close to the source as possible.
This requires a dog who is confident on unstable and unusual surfaces and who has a strong drive to get to the 'victim' working in around the hide to find a way in. We do not actually want the dog to get to the 'victim' but we do want the dog to overcome difficulties to get as close as possible.
Why do we not want the dog to actually get to the 'victim'? Because the dog must alert on human scent only. If the dog manages to get to the 'victim' often during training, he/she may develop the tendency to walk off as human scent only may not be a strong enough motivator to stay and alert.
We have often been asked how we start a training a USAR dog? Usually it starts with what is called a 'bark box'. In the photo you can see a box between two drums. The front of the box is a slider with a long rope attached to it.
The slider has holes drilled into it at the base for human scent to escape and a lot of sand is placed in front of the box so that the dog is encouraged to dig. Most dogs like digging in sand. (A dog who digs energetically in the sand at the base of the bark box, or scratches at the lid itself, shows very strong penetration drive, which we love to see). By means of the long rope, the slider can be raised or lowered at a distance from the bark box.
HOW DO WE START?
Obviously the following is the merest introduction only and there are many steps and adjustments made along the way depending on how the dog performs. So please don't think that you can now go out and teach your dog the bark alert! It may work for you, but it may not.
All of the work is motivational, the dogs are not corrected and we make sure that the dogs are not overworked. We finish when we know that the dog still has energy for more work. Initially and for some time to come, the focus is almost solely on the dog. The handler has the task of bringing the dog to the exercise whilst the helper/victim is the most important person in the training regime.
BUT FIRST THE HANDLER IS THE 'VICTIM'
The dog is taught by the handler to bark on command first. The bark on command exercise is transferred to other people in the group and once the dog is comfortable working for other people even at a distance from the handler, we can work at the bark box.
The dog is introduced to the open bark box by the handler by both going into it. If the dog is fine, he/she will be asked to bark in the box. Some dogs take a little while to get used to being in a confined space with their handler, never mind another person. Barking in a confined space for the first time can be a little intimidating for some dogs at first too.
The dog is held by a helper, the handler takes the dog's favourite toy or food and calls the dog whilst running up to, and into, the box which is left open. The dog is released and usually of course the dog will run straight into the box to his/her handler. The handler motivates the dog to bark in the box.
Usually this only needs to be done once or twice in a row. The next step is to have the handler in the box with the lid lowered about halfway. This creates a visual barrier and is something the dog has to overcome. For some dogs this is no problem and others hesitate. We then have to deal with this hesitation appropriately.
The aim is to get the dog to dig and bark at the closed lid for his/her handler with the lid or slider all the way down. From here we progress towards using a helper who will have previously been in the bark box with the handler, but with the handler behind the helper so that the dog 'finds' the helper first. This person will become the 'victim' in the bark box for the next few training sessions and the handler from now on handles his/her own dog. For quite some time all this work is via motivation. That is, the dog sees the helper disappear into the box. The lid is raised or lowered as required as a reward for whatever action/behaviour we want to encourage in the dog.
BARK ALERT IS THE FOUNDATION OF CANINE USAR TRAINING
This exercise forms the foundation of all canine USAR training and is developed and expanded as the dog grows in confidence and performance. The formal bark alert is a normal part of training and is part of the rest of the USAR dog's life, including the operational dog.
We use the bark box to refine the alert behaviour, to iron out any problems that may have arisen, to help a dog overcome any sensitivities it may have and to set up special challenges for the dog under controlled conditions that we can later transfer to the disaster site. Once the dog is advanced, this more creative and challenging work is also fun and keeps up their interest.
As Jochen has a tendency to want to get to the 'victim' pushing his way through or even removing debris to get closer, we have had to make sure that he cannot get in, sometimes with not success. We have been sure that this time he cannot get in but has still found a way.
We have placed the most amazing array of drums, pallets, tarps, timber and whatever else we could place in front of and around the bark box to so that he would learn to alert from a distance when he cannot get any closer to the scent source.
This habit of trying to circle in on the 'victim' was at times an issue in the more complex disaster site in Switzerland. Never having faced such complex situations before, he would on occasion take quite some time before he was convinced that he could not get any closer.
In the above photo in the basement at the 'Salvador' site, he took quite some time before he settled into an alert. It needs to be understood that the air currents and thermals in such a building are very difficult and the dogs are given all the time they need to sort it out, a most fascinating experience.