What makes a good detection dog handler? Is it something that can be taught and learnt over time, or is it something more intuitive? Do some people just have what it takes, and other people don’t? At the start of 2017 I packed up my things and moved to the other side of the world to try and find out for myself what makes a good detection dog handler. This was with the ultimate purpose of finding out if I had what it takes to become a good detection dog handler.
By the end of 2016 I had finished my M.Sc. in International Animal Welfare, Ethics and Law at Edinburgh University. Whilst undertaking my Masters I was introduced to the world of conservation detection dogs thanks to a lecture by Dr Megan Parker, co-founder of Working Dogs for Conservation in Montana. I previously had no idea this line of work with detection dogs existed, but after Megan’s lecture I was determined to do all I could to learn more about it. I went on to research conservation detection dogs for my thesis paper, with Megan as my supervisor. I focused on the role of the handler in my paper: ‘The effect of the detection dog handler on the performance levels of the trained detection dogs.’ My research highlighted the individuality of each detection dog. One of my conclusions observed that a competent handler should be flexible in their ability to change their behaviours, techniques and general interactions with a detection dog depending on that dog’s specific trainability and working disposition.
Having spent the past year engrossed in the academic discourse of this profession I felt secure that I had read every paper and researched all I could, even producing my own findings on the subject matter. I had concluded that each detection dog has individual working needs. And that a handler should be adaptable to those needs. But how does a handler do that? How do you get the best performance out of a dog? What character traits and skills are required? By the end of 2016 I still did not know the answer to these questions. I knew I needed to find the right opportunity to find out for myself what makes a good detection dog handler.
Whilst undertaking the research for my thesis paper I had read an article by Luke Edwards at Canidae Development entitled ‘Conservation Dogs – Great Expectations and the Importance of the Handler.’ The article resonated with me and the research I had been undertaking for the past year. I emailed Luke to introduce myself. Several emails, a few Skypes and many months later I found myself on a plane traveling across the world to Australia to begin a 3-month internship with Canidae Development. Luke (Managing Director) and his wife Tracy (General Manager) welcomed me as part of the Canidae Development team. It would be a first for all of us. I was to learn how to become a conservation detection dog handler and Luke was going to try and train me with one of his trained detection dogs, Rubble.
We were all a little apprehensive to see how Rubble would take to having two handlers. And this took a little time. During our first training session Luke showed me how to put on Rubble’s work vest and collar. Rubble however seemed rather confused when I asked him to “go search”, he stared at Luke and then at me, not quite sure if he was to listen to my command. We needed to consider how every small change might affect Rubble’s understanding of the training session. So the next day, I put Rubble’s vest and collar on. It worked, and he went off searching on my command.
Rubble is six years old. He is a truly experienced detection dog and a right stickler for the rules. If I was doing something wrong during those early training sessions, Rubble would let me know. The perfect training partner. Out with our detection training sessions I also worked with Rubble on obedience training, a favourite of his. We believe this helped Rubble’s understanding that I was also giving commands. In fact, we now think Rubble feels a little bit special. After all, he’s now got two handlers to work with.
Every handler and every dog is different. Therefore, what I have learnt over the past six months working with Rubble I can only prescribe to our working partnership. I cannot say what Rubble has taught me will work for other handlers or other dogs. But, it works for us. And there are three main components which make for our successful partnership. Rubble and I work best on trust, confidence and enjoyment.
Trust is a huge component when working with a dog. And with any relationship, trust is something that is built over time. Once a dog has learnt to trust you, only then will the working relationship really succeed. Trust goes both ways of course. Early on in our training sessions I learnt one of my biggest lessons with Rubble; to trust in his ability! It was a regular field search and I was getting to grips with using the GPS unit. The GPS was tracking mine and Rubble’s movements. I was trying to make sure we were searching in straight transects at twenty meter gaps. Much of my attention was on the GPS unit screen, and not on Rubble. As we started walking along a new transect Rubble veered off our nice straight line; I tried calling him to get him back on the transect but he ignored me. I tried again, but got nothing in response. I was disheartened that Rubble was ignoring me. I turned to Luke, who only said, “He’s doing his job.” Sure enough, by this point was Rubble was in a drop, alerting on the target scent. He had picked up the scent a good 40 meters away as we started our new transect and deviated from course to go find the source. Thankfully, the Canidae dogs know to ignore any commands (except an emergency stop) when they are on a scent. Sometimes they have to put up with the occasional handler error. That day I learnt to trust in Rubble’s ability. It’s his nose that is doing all the work and if he goes of searching into the wind, my only job is to watch him. It might be nothing, but more often than not, that boy is onto something.
I believe we now have complete mutual trust. I have complete trust in Rubble’s scenting ability, and he trusts that I will reward him for his hard work. A dog also needs to have trust in you as a handler that you would never put them in harm. Their welfare, and your own, is the most important aspect of any search. There is trust between us when I ask him ‘go search’, when I lift him up and over a fence or climb a fallen tree.
Living with Rubble and the other Canidae Development dogs made a huge impact on my learning. Canidae Development have a ‘cradle to grave’ philosophy with all their dogs. Most of the dogs are part of the family from just eight weeks of age and they all stay part of the family throughout their working career, into their retirement and up until their death. Spending most of the hours in the day with these dogs, whether training them, feeding them or just crashing on the sofa with them built our trust and our bond.
The main obstacle in my early training days was my own confidence levels. Any doubts I had were purely on my own abilities, and not Rubble’s. My biggest concern was that I wouldn’t be up to the task, for whatever, unknown reason. Perhaps my temperament or some unconscious character traits would not translate into being a good dog handler. This, of course, made me nervous and no doubt overthink everything at the start of my training. There is a lot to learn when it comes to being a dog handler and in my eagerness, I tried to take it all in at once. When you are both enthusiastic and very much a beginner, the capacity to overthink can come rather easily, to me at least. Certainly, looking back on my early training sessions, I can see now that I was far more in my mind than in the moment. Second guessing yourself doesn’t go well with dog handling. You need to be in the moment with your dog. There is just no room for the handler ego when you are in that moment with them.
It’s now been six months since I started my internship with Canidae Development. In that time I’ve become a qualified dog handler. I’ve done it by learning to always have a clear understanding of the task at hand and to be confident in my abilities to successfully complete that task. That way, I can go out with Rubble and be in the moment with him. It took passing my first detectability assessment for me to really find my confidence.
Each handler and dog pairing completes a team assessment to determine if they are field-ready. After three months training, Rubble and I undertook our first assessment in April. These internal assessments are independently assessed by Emma Bennett, a highly-experienced Principle Ecologist at Elmoby Ecology. Our assessment took two days to complete, covering a total of 30.5 hectares and taking a total of 7.5 hours to complete. It is an extensive assessment. On both days, I was able to put any nerves to the side and went in confident. I was pretty certain if there was a target scent out there, Rubble would find it. I had complete trust in his abilities. I just needed to make sure we covered our search area. As Tracy would say, ‘cover your area and trust your dog, that’s all you can do.’ Wise words. Across both days, Rubble and I found all seventeen targets that were put out for the assessment. A 100% detectability rate for our first assessment together. Rubble and I did it! And it felt pretty great to know we’d now be able to go out and search together as a qualified detection team.
There really is a lot to learn when becoming a dog handler. A dog hander needs to understand every aspect of scent detection work. An awareness of yourself, your dog and the environment is essential. Only once this all becomes second nature to you can your focus begin to shift from trying to remember everything you need to do, to just letting it happen. Once I learnt to be confident in my abilities, I was able to go out and really enjoy my work. And really, learning to just enjoy searching with Rubble is perhaps one of the most important lessons I’ve learnt when it comes to being a good detection dog handler.
In my thesis paper, I referenced the popular dog handler expression ‘everything travels down the leash’. I learnt first-hand with Rubble the truth in this expression. My state of mind when working with Rubble matters. As my confidence grew I became more relaxed in my handling, I could enjoy myself more and I watched Rubble’s energy levels increase in the process. I was far more serious during our early training sessions. I thought I needed to firmly command to Rubble what I needed him to do. Really, I just needed to clearly communicate with him. It’s a subtle difference that makes a huge impact on how our searches are conducted. (All that said, I’ve also learnt Rubble can be a right chancer when he wants to be, and sometimes the best way to clearly communicate with him might well be via a firm command). Now, when Rubble gets out the back of the Ute for work he jumps up in the air, barking and playfully snatching at his vest that I’m holding. His keenness for work now mirrors my own. Everything does travel down the leash. I learnt to let go of the grip I had on it. And Rubble and I learnt to have some fun in the process!
Some years ago, I read a book called ‘The Philosopher and the Wolf’ by Mark Rolands. It’s an autobiographical book in which Rowlands’ writes about a turning point in his life in which he finds himself the owner of a, somewhat, domesticated wolf. Rowlands’ book details the many lessons he learnt from that wolf. And a lesson which has always stayed with me is Rowlands’ take on the way a wolf, or dog, experiences time in comparison to us humans. Humans understand time in a linear format. A beginning and an end. Everything as a means to some end. On the other hand canines, Rowlands argues, experience time as circular, and not linear. There is no action to any greater ends, only action in and of itself. In that moment. When they run with you in the morning, or dig a hole in the garden or jump in the lake, they are not concerned if they’ll be tired later or have muddy paws or have that wet dog smell. They are enjoying that moment. Rowlands learnt to be in the moment with his wolf, to enjoy all those moments and appreciate those experiences in their simplicity, as they occurred.
“Happiness is not a feeling; it is a way of being. If we focus on the feelings, we will miss the point.”
Rowlands, The Philosopher and the Wolf.
Since joining the Canidae Development team I’ve become more acutely aware of this philosophy. My background in television has allowed me the opportunity to develop several media projects for Canidae Development. I have hours and hours of footage of these dogs as they go about doing their work. When I sit down to edit the footage I often find myself sitting in front of the screen laughing or smiling as I watch these dogs enjoying their lives, and really just being in the moment. They have an almost enviable simplicity with which they live their lives that I find can be so difficult to grasp. Simplicity is not something I believe to be hollow or lacking in any richness. I see a fullness in the way these dogs experience each moment. I believe if you are willing to listen, dogs are teaching us some of the most fulfilling lessons in life. Living and working with the Canidae Development dogs has taught me this lesson, and I’m grateful to them for it.
Tracy told me at the start of my training that learning to be a dog handler is like holding up a mirror to yourself. You learn a lot about yourself through your dog. And whilst not all lessons are easy ones, they are always enlightening. I learnt to be a good dog handler over the past six months by being open to learning a few of these lessons, from my teammate, Rubble. And from two highly-experienced mentors who have been generous enough to share their knowledge, time and home with me. For that reason, I will always be enormously grateful to both Luke and Tracy for taking a chance on me, for giving me the opportunity to learn from them and their dogs, and to live in Australia as part of the Canidae Development family. My deepest thanks to you both for this experience.
I’ve likened learning to become a dog handler to learning how to drive. The car is your trained detection dog, it’s the ‘machine’ in this analogy that really does all the work! The handler is the driver, and a good driver needs to control the car, keeping it on course. A good handler also needs to focus on all the elements outside of the car to ensure a safe journey. Those first few car trips can be a little overwhelming for any learner. You are still getting used to the car, how it sounds and feels, and how you handle driving it within an ever-changing environment. A new driver might well be a little nervous during those initial few car trips. But finally, after a little time and a little more experience, they eventually learn to just simply enjoy the ride.
(Disclaimer: Having a car with built in cruise control can make the journey even more enjoyable. Thank you Rubble, you have taught me a great deal these past six months and it’s been a true pleasure, mate.)