I had anticipated either of us not doing well (more specifically me) and therefore not passing the test, but I had not anticipated Jochen failing the vet check.
VET CHECKS ARE OBLIGATORY
The Swiss take enormous care of their dogs and ensuring that the dogs are fit and healthy to continue the test is one aspect of their care. All dogs must be presented for a vet check at 6.30 am on the first day of the test. The next check is after that day's work, the next is the following morning and there is a final check at the end of the last day's work. This is like the vet checks that are done in the horse eventing world.
Jochen was fine in the initial check but some concern was voiced in relation to his back after the four day searches. I had to keep him warm, and walk him a lot so that he would not stiffen up. Then came the three night searches. I massaged his back but at the Saturday morning's check when the vet touched him along his back he had muscle spasms. Two vets looked at him and after discussions with a number of key people and of course me, I was advised to withdraw him from the test. Anti-inflammitory medication was given.
So much of the work requires the dogs to crawl through small and tight gaps, long shafts, tunnels and pancakes as in this photo. Jochen is a big dog and he crawled and squeezed himself through spaces that he barely fitted into. Given that he is on the longer side of the ideal height-to-length proportions, the physical demands of those seven searches was obviously too much for his back muscles.
HOW DID I FEEL?
Shocked, concerned and disappointed but the decision was quite easy to make. The fact that so much time, money and effort was invested into giving Jochen and me the chance to participate in this test was irrelevant in making that decision. Obviously, his welfare comes first. The next consideration was regarding the medication. I was told that it can cause vomiting or diarrhoea in some dogs. Given that he will be in an airline crate in a few days on his way back to Australia, this was alarming. So far, everything is fine and his back also seems fine.
HOW DID WE DO IN THOSE SEVEN SEARCHES?
Firstly, Jochen did really well. One assessor said to me this morning that he is a mature, experienced dog who is very creative in how he goes about his work. Throughout his alerts were strong and convincing and he searched with calm focus. Depending on the situation he would either alert quickly and strongly or he would spend a fair amount of time trying to get as close as possible to the 'victim' before alerting. Other feedback was that when he has the scent of a 'victim', he follows through, does not leave the victim and alerts strongly and reliably and that I have a very good dog. I know that.
The story of my work is a little more complex. As a team we did not function as well as I am used to. I was not always able to support him as well as he needed to do his work more effectively. It became clear to me quite quickly that I simply did not have enough practise at this level to be able to manage the search and the time effectively. Peter said in most cases my tactical decision making was good but converting the decisions and managing the search was often a weakness.
These disaster sites are such that unless the handler has had so much practise that acting and reacting is almost second nature,it is easy to become bogged down and run out of time. I have written in a previous blog about the differences between the sites we have available in Australia and the sites at Les Epeisses. In Australia I rarely need all the time given for a search and call early. Here, I ran out of time in six of the seven searches. This meant that not all of those sites were searched and we missed too many victims. Quite simply, if I had managed the searches better, Jochen would have had a better chance of finding the 'victims' and we would have passed. I was often faced with problems that I did not know how to solve. I was told that it was obvious why I ran into difficulties - lack of experience in complex sites with correspondingly complex conditions.
In Australia we have a separate time for the briefing and questioning plus 20 minutes to do the search. Here, we have 20 minutes from the moment we are given the situation report. Given that in Australia we have EASY sites that can be likened to kindergarten level, yet have more time in which to work them, whilst Les Epeisses is university level with less time in which to work, you can see that there is a huge gap between the two.
I was told that I have so much more knowledge and experience by comparison to many of the candidates at this test, but what I do not have is the experience of consistently working at the level of Les Epeisses sirtes and that was the problem. Others told me that it generally takes them several years to get to a level where they can consider the operational test. Put into context, we actually did really well.
At the end of each day's searches, via a projector the assessors give a photo description of where the 'victims' were placed, what they were looking for in setting up their searches and how generally the teams worked (there are two assessors per site). This provides valuable information and gives the candidates very good insight into what worked, what didn't work and why. (I actually find this system more useful than the debriefing system we have in Australia.) I certainly felt much better about my own performance and came to understand that whilst I am used to performing at a much higher level than I did at this test, given the complexities, the lack of experience at this level, I actually did well. In the end, even if Jochen had been allowed to continue, I doubt very much whether we would have passed.
Nonetheless, I will always remember with pride and the biggest grin on my face the second search in particular where everything flowed, both Jochen and I were on fire and we did top work. My only regret in respect to this test is that given all that I have learned in fighting my way through I cannot come back and put it to the test again next year. I would do that test again in a heartbeat and do my best to reproduce that second search again and again.
WAS THE JOURNEY WORTH IT?
In answering that question, I need to remind myself and you, the reader, what this project was all about.
- To train with my dog in Switzerland
- To gather knowledge that will improve me as a handler, instructor and assessor in canine USAR search and pass this knowledge on to those wishing to learn from this new knowledge.
- To participate in the toughest canine USAR test
- To put to a serious test our training in Australia and see if Jochen and I can swim at the top level
- To showcase Australian German Shepherd Dog breeding
After Jochen was declared unfit and I was free to follow the other teams, I contemplated the time we have spent here and I know that I could not have done any more or done anything differently or better to prepare both Jochen and me for this test. Three months seems like a long time but in the end it is not. When Lynne Finch decided to come from Perth to Victoria last year to train with us so that she and her dog Reg could do the Advanced Operational Test, she gave herself a year at great cost to herself. They passed that test very well. Effectively, Jochen and I needed a year in Switzerland but this was not ever going to be possible unless we won Tattslotto.
How can I explain to people who are not involved with canine USAR training, and even those who are, how incredibly valuable the learning has been? Alex, Peter and I have been to Switzerland so many times as observers, to do courses, to educate ourselves to the very best of our ability, but unless one 'gets down and dirty' it will to a degree be theory. I had to be here, put myself, my knowledge, my experience, my courage and my wonderful partner Jochen to the highest test. I had to put Alex, Peter's and my training of others to the test. How well are we really doing compared to a country and an organisation that is globally known to have unarguably the highest standard? Are we providing those in Australia who wish to work with us quality training? We can only find that out if one of us at least is prepared to jump in the deep end do it. I was fortunate to be the one.
Given how much I have learned, given how much I have experienced, survived, bled, struggled, and given the outcome - there might have been a pass but probably not, I can say from the bottom of my heart that every moment has been valuable, precious and priceless.
A pass would have been the icing on the cake, the learning, the experience, the knowledge gained is the cake, a well-baked one with excellent ingredients at that.
In order for Australia to come out of the canine USAR kindergarten and for USAR dogs to be taken seriously, we MUST have much better facilities. The problems Jochen and I encountered were almost entirely due to our lack of serious, challenging disaster sites on which to hone our skills.
To the surprise of many here, I am emotionally absolutely fine with the outcome of this project. What irks and frustrates me however is that I cannot train and instruct at a level in Australia that would produce higher quality canine USAR teams because of those poor facilities. Our rubble sites are inadequate. Alex, Peter and I are able to produce teams to the highest level our sites will allow. The fact that Jochen and I did as well as we did, is a tribute to our dedication and determination to aim as high as we can. Near enough is simply not good enough when we are engaged in searching for victims buried under the rubble of collapsed buildings and the like. We could do so much better if we had better facilities.
One of the Swiss who have worked with us in Australia said that we have shown remarkable ingenuity and creativity to draw the last ounce of training possibilities out of our site. Its restrictions are such that we will only ever be able to produce teams to a certain level. This makes it all the more surprising that Jochen and I really did have a chance to pass this test. Jochen is a very good dog and I am a very good handler.
After this trip I am shock-full of ideas and learning. I know that we are able to train our canine USAR teams really well to a certain level. What this trip has taught me is how to prepare teams much better for a serious test and how to prepare teams to work in an equipe on deployment.