Once he had the call from Andreas, we headed to the starting point, another short walk away but already heading into the rubble area.
THE EQUIPE & THE ROTATIONAL SYSTEM
Under the Swiss system, canine USAR teams are deployed in a grouping of three dog/handler teams, one specifically trained equipe or team leader and one structural safety officer. In this instance we of course did not have the safety officer per se as a number of observers plus Andreas as the overall person in charge, fulfilled that role.
Normally, one team is sent to search, the second team is sent in to confirm any find the first team has made and usually the third team is sent in to confirm as well before rescue personnel is called in to retrieve the victim. The third team then continues to search and so the teams are constantly rotated, giving each dog sufficient rest before searching again.
As this area is so vast and so difficult, Ivo decided that he would have all three teams on site on the starting line at the same time. It would have taken too long to follow through with the formal rotational system.
There are countless hectares of massive boulders and rocks strewn by some gigantic hand over a vast area. It is almost impossible to take two normal steps on level ground. 99% of the time we had to step up, around, over, down, to make any headway. It was really a matter of rock climbing almost constantly. The photos do not do the enormity and difficulty of the terrain justice.
As Ivo did not know how Jochen works and did not know how agile I might be, he designated us as team number three. We were stationed on the left flank and on our left and right at the start was a high point with the usual massive boulders. Rebecca and her Malinois moved forward to search whilst I had to remain stationery. Her dog found a victim in that high point to my left very quickly and alerted really well. Even though I was team number three, because Jochen and I were so close, we were sent in to confirm which Jochen did very well.
However, honesty compels me to report that I was nervous and handled like a rank beginner. I normally let Jochen search with as little interference and commands as possible. He knows what to do and does his job really well, otherwise I would never have embarked on this project.
I was surprised how much the test mentality was still in me. In my mind I had to keep sight of my dog at all times (assessors regularly ask if you know where your dog is) which under these conditions was nigh on impossible. So I kept stopping to see where he was. This led him to think that he needed to come back to me, and the more I stopped to see where he was, the more he stopped and the closer he stayed to me. Then I had to tell him to search, trying to give him the idea that he should detach. There was confusion all round. It was not good. At one point he did manage to detach and got the scent of the victim and that is when he worked really well. This was quite an effort as I had done everything wrong and hindered instead of helped him.
A WHISPER IN MY EAR
We were then sent on to search with the same result as above minus a find because no-one was there to be found. However it was evident that we were not functioning well as a team so Ivo parked us and sent the other two on to work. Whilst I was waiting, Andreas came over to me and told me that I didn't have to keep looking for my dog, that observing the dog, sorting out the tactics, checking the wind and adjusting the plan accordingly, was the equipe leader's job.
Well, once I had THAT information, it was easy for me. From then on I simply walked in the direction Ivo wanted me to go, thereby upholding my side of the plan. One thing that many SAR handlers don't understand is that we don't have to keep directing our dogs. If we walk in the direction we want our dogs to go, they will do so without having to be constantly told.
With my change of handling, Jochen was able to settle into doing what he is trained to do - search.
One of the dogs found a victim right over on the right flank and the next dog closest was brought in to confirm the find.
We were then moved on to continue the search and Jochen and I were back in the middle of the field. He suddenly showed interest and worked very hard to get to the figurant. This was however very difficult as the person was placed very deep into a crevasse and from the angle Jochen approached it was impossible for him to get close to him. He started alerting and Ivo asked me to praise him and then bring him up behind the boulder to see if he could get closer. We actually had to leave the figurant for a shortish distance but it was the only way to eventually get to where he needed to go.
Jochen worked his way around and picked up scent again and yet again he tried to get as close as possible. However he was prevented from doing so:
(a) because the gap was very narrow and
(b) he was right at a ledge above a very big drop down.
He made moves to jump down but I prevented him because it was quite clear that it would have been very difficult to get him back up.
We called the alert and the figurant scrambled towards him and gave him his reward. The other two teams were called to confirm. Ivo wanted to let the figurant out but Andreas would not let him. It fairly quickly became clear why.
Jochen and I were parked on a small ledge not far from the above find whilst the other two dogs did their confirming work.
The three teams were again placed in position with Jochen and me still in the middle. We all had to search at the same time within our allotted space. Almost immediately that I sent Jochen to search, he moved forward only slightly and then doubled back around the boulder we had actually been parked on. He worked his way into a slight valley and showed great interest. I was not sure whether this was scent coming up from the other figurant who was actually very close, particularly as the wind was coming up the mountain quite strongly. I called Ivo and it turned out that both he and Andreas had seen Jochen's behaviour just as I was calling through.
Ivo called a halt and came over. He was fairly sure the scent was from someone else. We gave him room to move and he worked his way through the problem and yes, he found another person who had actually been holed up almost right underneath where we had been parked! He did a lovely alert. The others were brought in to confirm this find and then the two figurant were allowed to come out.
The reason the first figurant was left in was of course to see whether, or how, we all would solve the problem of two figurant so close together and with the wind adding the complexity.
(To give you some perspective, you can see some orange in the top left hand corner of the photo, a person).
Once this second find of Jochen's had been dealt with, we continued to work our way up, each team traversing the field. There were no finds for a while until one of the teams found on the far right flank. As this person responded, there was no need to confirm.
We continued in this way until we came fairly close to the top of our search area. Rebecca's Malinois made another find and did a beautiful alert.
Right at the top was the final figurant and the advice was to treat this as a motivational type find to ensure that the dogs finished on a good note. This meant that Elsbeth's dog was brought quite close to the hiding place so that he would have an easy find. He found and again did his usual beautiful alert.
Jochen and I had been parked quite close and when Jochen was sent in, he totally surprised me by not going to where I had seen the Retriever alert but rather, showed interest at a large, fairly flat boulder that was in front of another very large but upright boulder. He tried to squash underneath the boulder but could not get in very far as the space narrowed down too much. He alerted beautifully.
THE WIND & AIR CURRENTS PLAY TRICKS
Ivo asked me to reward him and bring him over to the gap between the two boulders. Again, the gap was not great and although Jochen did his best to worm his way in, he had no chance. However, he did another lovely alert. So Elias, who was the figurant, was asked to make his way closer so that he could reward him.Later Elias told us that when he checked the wind, it was actually blowing very strongly underneath the flattish boulder Jochen had tried to crawl underneath. So he was right.
Air currents can be very tricky as this situation showed. Despite the the wind blowing up the mountain, in that hide the air current was sucked out into the path of the uphill wind.
1. Once I understood that I could leave so much to my equipe leader, I switched on and left him to it. This made Jochen's life so much easier and we became the team of old.
2. Jochen struggled with the terrain despite the fact that he is very agile. I am not used to him having difficulties. I was told that EVERY dog that is confronted with this search area for the first time struggles and that he was no different.
3. It was clear that fitness for this type of environment just was not there. Impossible to have given that we have NOTHING even remotely close to anything like this in Australia. Not that many Swiss dogs have either as they tend to keep this area close to their chest.
4. This search terrain is the most brutal, challenging, fantastic, confronting that I have ever come across or could ever have dreamed of. I would go back in a heartbeat. This is the equivalent of extreme sport thrown in at the deep end. I LOVED it.
5. If you suffer from vertigo, claustrophobia, are not agile, cannot carry a quite heavy backpack - DO NOT apply. You need the best hiking boots with the best tread you can afford. Nothing else will do in this terrain. This is definitely not for the faint hearted.
6. They said it was a real pity that we missed out on the previous day's training due to my stupid tooth episode. I could see that. It was a setback that could not be helped.
Given the difficulties and disadvantages that Jochen had to work under, given that he struggled with the terrain, he did a beautiful job. Every time he had human scent he performed just as he always does. I was very, very proud of him, whilst recognising that fitness training is something I MUST continue with. But I knew that before we started.
We took 2.5 hours to complete that search. The equipe that worked in the afternoon higher up, was made up of three very experienced teams but took just as long.
The equipe I was privileged to work in was super. The other two dog handlers were also calm and it was a pleasure to watch their dogs work.
I wish our Australian task forces and their leaders and my fellow canine USAR handlers Australia-wide wherever they are from, had been here to see this search, the equipe rotational system and the equipe leaders in action. It is the most logical, time-efficient, energy-efficient way of managing the challenge of a complex search.
My role as a dog handler is made so much easier when I can have faith in an experienced equipe leader who is calm, knowledgeable and logical and is able to keep the whole search together.
EQUIPE LEADER REQUIREMENTS
The REDOG equipe leader must first and foremost be an operational dog handler, must have been on deployment, must be a trainer in his/her regional group and must be recommended by his/her head trainer to attend the equipe leader course. This role is seen as critical in the success of the dogs as part of the search component in the Swiss Rescue Chain. They have equal value in that chain and are highly regarded. I can see why.
Those of us who worked in the morning became figurant or victims for the equipe working in the afternoon. I was one of the second last people to be found, high up on the mountain side. Andreas found a crevasse for me to slip into and I discovered that with some slight twisting and turning I was able to go quite a long way down.
Apropos figurant, there were quite a number of retired REDOG members who came all that way just to be figurant. I cannot remember how many victims were placed in each search but I think it was about 6 -7. I did not describe all of the finds.
I would come to this workshop every year if I could and it was a privilege to be here only once.
This was the alpine lake at the end of our search where we could let the dogs swim and also tie them up whilst being figurant for the afternoon equipe.