All animals, just as all people, like to have a purpose. But some dogs have a very special purpose — to search and find people buried in piles of rubble. These dogs are remarkable in every way and it has been my privilege to talk to a number of them.
One such dog is Aedan, an Australian Shepard, whose person is Jane. In October, Jane talked to me about Aedan, who was in training to be a search dog. Jane was very concerned. Aedan wasn’t progressing with his training. Jane said Aedan seemed confused and didn’t seem to understand what he was supposed to do. In fact, he was actually regressing in his training.
Aedan showed me that he would constantly stop and look to Jane for guidance during training. Jane confirmed that this was exactly what he did. Aedan was not at all confident and kept feeling like he was “ doing it wrong. ” My feeling was that Aedan was a very sensitive dog, which made him sensitive to his person’s energies and to the energies of the practice “ victims ”. Jane said that the ” victim ” was crucial to the training, since the reward for the “ find ” was the “ victim’s ” interaction/play with the dog. I suggested that she try being more of a cheerleader for Aedan. He needed and wanted Jane’s approval. I suggested that Jane correct Aedan if he went wrong, but then let it go — support him and encourage him, not be tough on him. Jane really wanted Aedan to succeed, so she agreed to try this.
Next we focused on making sure Aedan understood what he needed to do — that when Jane said, “ Go find ” he needed to search the whole rubble pile until he found the buried person’s scent, then stop and “ alert ” (bark continuously) until he was released. Aedan showed me that he was only barking once, very weakly, because he wasn’t sure that was what he was supposed to do. I assured him that the bark alert was correct — but that he needed to keep barking until he was released and got to play with a toy for a reward. I also suggested that he use his “ big boy ” bark — he said he understood now and would be able to do what he needed to do.
Jane thought it might help Aedan if he understood what his job was about. I asked Aedan what he thought the training was all about — he said he thought it was a game and about playing with the toy at the end — it didn’t seem important to him. I told Aedan that it wasn’t really about the toy — that he was training for a very important job that only very special dogs like him could do. I told him that he could help keep people from crossing to Spirit too soon by finding them in the rubble. I told him that if he could learn his job well, he would get to travel to new places and find people he’d never met before. I told Aedan that Jane couldn’t do the work (the scenting and searching) that only he could do it. I reminded him what his job was — to search the rubble pile, find the scent, follow it to source and bark continuously to alert where the scent was coming from. I told him that not many dogs could do this work — but he had the skills, the nose and the smarts to do it! I could feel him puff up with pride in himself for the first time in the conversation!
The next practice, Jane said she was a cheerleader for Aedan — and he was a star! He worked independently, was able to deal with shifting rubble — even a board that flipped up and hit him. When Aedan found the “ victim ”, he gave his “ big boy ” bark! In Jane’s words, “ The cheerleader in me told Aedan he was awesome and physically rubbed and petted him — could a dog hold his head higher? ”
We checked in with Aedan in November. He’d been doing very well. He said he was having fun finding new people (practice “ victims ” he didn’t know). It felt to me that with each new experience, Aedan was becoming more confident — he knew what he needed to do, he knew his work was important and he was having fun doing it. Aedan had found his purpose!
In January, Jane asked me to talk to Aedan again. Jane had taken Aedan to FL to practice at a search dog training area there. I asked Aedan how he liked searching in a new place and finding new people. His energy was very confident. He said he knew his job is important. He said he was “ thorough and careful ” on the rubble piles and that he liked the puzzle of figuring out how to be safe and find the person.
Jane asked if it would be possible for Aedan to search faster — not less careful, just quicker. I asked Aedan if he had to “ think ” about being safe — he said he didn’t. He said, “ I feel the rubble with the pads of my feet ” and could jump off to a safe spot without needing to think about it. I suggested that he try leaving being safe on the rubble piles to his intuition (which he was already doing) so he could focus on scenting and searching — that if he could do this, he’d be able to search faster. He said he’d never thought of that, but he felt he could do it.
We asked Aedan if he thought the fun part of searching was playing with the toy after he found the person or searching and finding the person — he said it was searching and finding that was the most fun — that the real reward was finding the person. Jane asked if Aedan understood that he was special — he said, “ Yes — I’m not like other dogs. I get to go on the part of the plane where the people go! ”
Aedan is still in training, but Jane hopes that soon he will be ready to test his skills so he can join the elite group of dogs who help people in desperate need — people whose lives depend on the dog’s skills, courage and determination to find those who need to be found.
“ I was ready to wash Aedan from the training and came to Sky as a last resort. Sky, thanks for finding out the issues/roadblocks Aedan was having. I really like seeing his focus and determination. Aedan had several agility/rubble issues in training this week that shook him, but he sucked it up and continued! He did not freeze! He pushed ahead — I’m so proud of him! ” — Jane S., MD
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