The first thing that I have learned is that Peter, Alex and I know how to train canine USAR teams. This however does NOT mean that we know it all and that there is no more to learn. This is never the case as methods and ideas change and different people come up with different ways of doing things. Dog training is, or should be, very organic and fluid. This is why the Swiss do not write a book or manual on 'How to train a USAR dog'. They want to be open to change and do not want to be pinned down by a manual. Human nature being what it is, there will always be people who will say, 'It says in the manual......' as if this were gospel truth and clinches any argument.
SO, WHAT ELSE HAVE I LEARNED THAT I DID NOT KNOW BEFORE?
One of my reasons for wanting to take Jochen to Switzerland, train with him here and do the test, is that being an observer only, as I have been so often here, only tells part of the story - the theory. Dog training requires more than theory. It requires participation, making mistakes, discovering that whilst the theory is fine as such, reality in the form of a living creature - the dog, adds complexity, questions, hiccups, mistakes and a dynamic that theory alone can only partially explain.
1. THEORY CONVERTED TO PRACTICE
In actually working here with Jochen, I learned to really question all previously held ideas, knowledge, training and theory. I decided from the outset to clear my mind as much as possible from what I believed I knew and in a sense be a beginner again. There were many reasons why initially Jochen and I did so badly, but this is one of them.
In being here with my dog, I had to put myself on the line and deal with whatever the outcome might be. I had to think in ways I have not had to in a long time. This has given me an incredible opportunity to question as never before.
One of my perceived weaknesses has been the management and tactics of searches, be this in wilderness or in USAR. I have a tendency to fly by the seat of my pants and this is fine when the rubble site is not that difficult, which the ones in Australia are not. The problem with this is though that I don't learn tactics and management at a higher level. So long as my dog will do it, and Jochen always has, then we are fine. If there are any challenges, then I have to get my brain into gear rather than being able to automatically draw on a store of similar experiences.
I think this has been the greatest learning for me on this trip with Jochen. The complexities of the various training sites, be it at Les Epeisses or at that huge recycling centre, Serbeco or at Meiersboden near Chur, are such that I simply could not rely on my dog to do his job without much support from me. After all, Jochen was faced with complex situations he had never encountered before either. So there we were, looking at each other.
I was very fortunate to have very good people to guide me through those difficulties, people who are very experienced as dog handlers, as instructors, assessors and with deployment experience. Because I was able to fully open to their input and advice and put on the back burner pretty much anything I already knew, I was like a sponge and really learned tactics and search management - particularly managing Jochen and his energy.
In struggling like a beginner,(and when one thinks about the complexities we faced, both Jochen and I were in a sense like beginners), taking photos of some of the particularly tricky sites, making notes and diagrams, I was able to slowly but surely put the advice into some sort of logical order and let it sink into that part of the brain where it needed to go.
As a result, the tactics/management of a canine USAR search is starting to feel much more comfortable and like second nature. Going through it in my mind, getting into 'The Zone' in preparation for the test is also helping, but until I 'got it', there was not sufficient experience at this much higher level to get into the zone about.
I will now be in a much better position to support and advise our candidates when they are going for an operational test.
3. WORKING IN AN EQUIPE
I have written a little about the equipe when I wrote about the deployment exercise. Certainly, Peter, Alex and I have worked very hard to introduce and explain the value of the Swiss Equipe system to the Australian USAR world. Both in Victoria and South Australia we have had much success in having it understood and accepted.
ASSDA has always worked in the equipe system whenever we have been asked to work with the Victorian and South Australian USAR Task Forces. Since 2003, except for one time when I was an equipe leader as my Achim had died and Jochen was just a youngster, I have always been a dog handler. So you may well ask, 'What is there still to learn then?'
Again, the complexities of the facilities available in Switzerland, specifically at Les Epeisses, Wangen a.d.Aare (temporarily closed for reconstruction) and Serbeco are such that equipe leaders, dogs and handlers are faced with challenges that we simply do not encounter in Australia. Might I add here that as a consequence it means that most Australian canine USAR teams are not properly prepared for deployment.
Given the limitations of our poor facilities, I believe we have done very well and have been able to reach a very good standard. This is evidenced by the fact that Jochen and I worked seamlessly within the equipe at the deployment exercise and that feedback on our performance was so positive.
However..... during the whole of the deployment exercise I felt excited at the new and different situations we had to deal with. I learned what my dog in particular is actually capable of and by extension, what dogs are capable of when well-trained, well handled and thoughtfully guided by a good equipe leader.
We always need to remind ourselves that our job is to help save lives. During this deployment exercise I learned and experienced that when a team is properly trained on facilities that are challenging in so many different ways, ways that Australian USAR dog handlers can only dream of, when egos are kept outside the gate and the equipe works in harmony and cohesion, then that mantra of, 'we are here to save lives' actually has a foundation in reality and therefore has real value.
I learned that my dog and I can work together very effectively under rather trying conditions with little sleep and rise to the occasion as required. I always knew I had a very good dog in Jochen, otherwise I would not have dreamed of embarking on this journey, however, I could not know how good he is (and how good I am) until we got out of the little puddle in Australia and jumped into the big lake in Switzerland.
4. SO WHAT DOES ALL THAT MEAN?
It means that I have learned the following:
- How to think about tactics/management of a search at a high level and how to teach that to other dog handlers. This is crucial.
- How to prepare a team for an operational test
- What to teach a dog handler on how to conduct themselves when working in an equipe/deployment
- Adding knowledge to the other two Swiss-trained equipe leaders, Alex and Peter, and teaching trainee equipe leaders to be effective leaders on deployment.
5. CALM & GENTLE DOES IT - BUT DON'T WASTE OUR TIME
One thing that has always impressed me with the Swiss is their general attitude to dog training. They are relaxed, calm and patient. What will not work today will work tomorrow... or the day after... or whenever. Unless the dog or the handler is obviously useless, they will give the dog all the time it needs to get the job done. If the dog or handler us useless, they just don't waste their time. They ask the handler to go away and find something else to do.
Some people find me a little too direct and confronting. Well, in working with my dog here, being right in there with these people rather than standing on the outside observing, I had a better insight into what directness really is. Guys, you have no idea. The impression is along the lines of 'suck it up princess or you are wasting our time'. The attitude is, 'you are here to become a deployable team. Deployment is not a picnic. It often is hard, miserable work. If you can't cope, go away.' So I learned that I am not that confronting or too direct at all.
6. THE HANDLER MAKES THE DIFFERENCE
It goes without saying that the SAR dog must have specific drives and assets to become successful. However I have learned to a much greater degree how crucial the training of the handler is. I have of course always known this but on this trip, working my way through the complexities I have already written about, it hit home so much more given what I have had to take on board and learn. The handler can make or break the reliability and longevity of the canine SAR team. I am experienced, I have learned much over the years but on this trip I have been pushed to a much higher level. That is exciting.
7. WHAT I STILL EXPECT TO LEARN
I still need to learn how to pace myself and manage Jochen and his energy over eleven searches. I have achieved this well over seven searches and I need to draw on that experience for the test here. Until I have done that, I won't know how well I have learned in that respect.