Victims are what we depend on

by Dana McGuire

Okay here's the thing:

Victims are what we depend on for training a K9.

Without a victim (or "Vic") to hide for our dogs, the dogs would not be able to recognize the scent and associate it with a human being. And without that recognition, our dogs could not do their job.

So, being that the Vics are important to our dogs' training, it's reasonable to say they play a vital role in that training.

If you plan on being a Vic, or have a new person that wants to volunteer there are a few things you need to be aware of.

When you tell your victim to place the next flag so it is within view of the previous flag, allowing you as a the handler to know the line they walked laying their trail, the Vic will hear this and make two turns around a 7' tall cedar bush, and crawl thru a thorn bush. When you ask them to walk 100m to the tallest Oak tree over there on the ridge and then go directly West for another 50m, your Vic will walk 50m to a dead sapling; turn NW and walk 2ft before stopping. When you ask them to flag their trail properly it will be flagged every 10ft in an open line of sight field and every 100m in dense forest.

I say all this in jest...not because I'm making ANY of it up, but because it's all too true. If you handlers have NOT had similar incidents...then you are brand new, been blessed with the most talented victims ever, or you are lying! 

Everyone starts our in SAR as a newbie. And this includes the victims. They have to start somewhere. I believe every potential handler should be victim for other K9 teams as well, so they can understand what it's like to have to set up a trailing or airscent problem, this will teach them what works and what doesn't sometimes quicker than if they are working the dog on the problem. This also helps them understand an incident from an actual lost person's perspective. Yes, they only stay in place for 15, 30 min, an hour at a time, or sometime longer if you have a patient victim, but sitting there, in the silence, thinking "okay...if I was lost, would I sit here, or would I go over to that hill?" "Would I wait for them to find me or when I heard voices would I start walking towards them?"

The idea is for the dog to do all the work and not be allowed to see the victim, for this interrupts the process of following the scent all the way to the scent source. YES, reality is that most LPIs (Lost Person Incidents) where your dog actually finds a person in it's search sector will not find them hidden under a camo netting, behind a tree, in a rubble pile, in the closet, under a blanket, in a barrel, under a tarp, etc...the person will be sitting up or walking to or from you. But in order to train the dog to use it's nose as it's main detection tool we take away as much possibility for sighting or hearing the Vic, just like we try to remain "dumb" so the dog has to continually tell us where the victim is with alert behaviors. We WANT that dog to be ABLE to find a completely hidden scent source and not see the person when they are within 50m of them...if you don't train this way, what happens the day you have a real LPI and the victim is in a well or sinkhole, rubble pile or under a fallen tree? The dog has to be able to take you all the way in to that person.

Training must imitate reality. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.


We will ask you to follow our instructions when laying a trail. Every handler is different. Every handler is picky. There are other words to describe HOW picky we are. I am very picky.  Some of you know this. But remember to ask each handler you are assisting what they are training on that day, as well as exactly what they want you to do.

If they tell you to lay a scent pad at the head of the trail, and you are not familiar with this technique, ask. They will be happy to demonstrate it. If you think that since previous trainings you hid yourself in a woodline but the handler has not asked this of you for the current scenario, ask, "where do you want me to hide?"

Don't assume or make up what you think you SHOULD do. This may be counterproductive to what the handler is trying to accomplish or may put some element into the scenario that isn't what they wanted.

Speaking for myself, I know I have various things I've thought of I want to train, see, watch for or whatever and I do not always share each of them when having a victim lay a trail. Nor do I give reason for why each turn, flag, obstacle, trail age, weather condition is being added to or taken away from a training. 1. I don't have to, and 2. trainings usually don't last long enough to go into all the small stuff. On the other hand, if we as handlers DID share this with our victims and take more time to explain why we do some things or ask them to do some of the things we do, then THEY in turn, might be able to set up the scenario better for us.

I will not place blame for a victim not following my instructions to a tee...because in the end, it's my fault for not making those instructions clear enough for the Vic to follow! It's funny to see sometimes. But can frustrating for the handler and a huge stumbling block for the dog. You may not be ending a dog's career, but you may inadvertently set up a obstacle that inputs bad training for the dog.

Our dogs require our best from us. And no matter whether it's dog to handler, handler to dog, or handler to victim...communication is what we need to remember is the building block of a good relationship.

© 2008 Dana McGuire

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