Ana, Dusty, and Harley—in terms of their combination of physical ability and prey drive—were in the top percentile of dogs in America. But in a way, finding them was the easy part. Now we had to turn their raw talent and energy into usable search skills. This task would depend on more than just optimistic persistence. There are so many trying aspects of disaster search training, even the most robust candidates can fall short.
As training stood in 1996, only about 20 percent of dogs made it to become qualified search dogs. For the SDF pilot program, I didn’t have any leeway. I needed all three Goldens to pass. I figured that was the minimum for demonstrating SDF training was foolproof. I also did not have the funds to support a backup plan.
I had another problem. Murphy’s success had been the result of learning from years of trial and error, dead ends, and inadequate training. If I wanted to get anywhere close to my goal—and thus anywhere close to closing America’s gap of search dogs in my lifetime—competent search dogs would have to be regularly produced in under one year. I thought I knew the woman who could do it.
IN 1988, MY first attempt at training a search dog was with Topa, my lanky German Shepherd. When I started training her, the notion to train a dog to do something special had been my only lodestar. Truth be told, I had no idea what I was doing. As it turned out, I wasn’t alone.
Every week, I’d load up Topa in the car and drive to the nearest canine SAR club. There were a few different groups, and I bounced from one to the other, trying to soak up as much knowledge as possible to mold Topa into a competent search dog. What’s the best reward? Some said toys, others treats. One group heeled the dog on the right, while the other heeled the dog on the left. When I brought up these discrepancies, they were dismissed. I came to realize there was only one common thread across all of these groups—they hated each other.
Before my time, the canine SAR groups in Southern California had started as one. But dog trainers are often hardnosed, type-A personalities. When they give a command, they’re used to being obeyed. You can see how, when introducing something as intangible as how to best train a search dog, friction could easily develop. And develop it did.
Like a nation fracturing into civil war, the group split into different factions. When the dust settled, there were seven different canine SAR training groups across California, eventually known as the California SAR Dog Confederation, all convinced their own particular way was the right way to train a search dog.
Understandable, I suppose, but while the groups tried to refine their training philosophies, the dogs often didn’t train at all. It took me almost two years and multiple groups, but I eventually realized the groups were more of a social outlet—dinners and drinks and, of course, discounting the other groups’ training philosophies. Meanwhile, my Topa wasn’t any closer to becoming a search dog.
More troubling was the fact that the groups didn’t seem to mind the stagnation. The dogs were happy enough training once a month, but that is no way to make progress. Search standards were malleable benchmarks the groups arbitrarily created. When the majority of the dogs couldn’t meet certain time or detection standards, the group sometimes lowered the standard. The groups seemed oblivious to the fact that we were not doing anyone any favors, especially the search dog community.
Incompetent dogs and handlers betray a dog’s potential. Many rescuers at the time did not, in fact, trust dogs, or figured there were better, more reliable search tools. I couldn’t blame them. I would only want the best if my family were trapped under the rubble, wouldn’t you? No way would I invest in an asset that might miss a victim.
To make matters worse, the separate groups were convinced the other groups were doing things wrong, so any suggestion otherwise was considered treasonous. I often worried I was being purposefully held at the same level as others—if my dog was to get too good at searching, it would make the others look bad, of course. I couldn’t make sense of such behavior—this wasn’t a competition or corporate business. Our only goal should’ve been to save lives.
There were plenty of dogs that would never make good search dogs, but that didn’t make them bad dogs. The same went for handlers and trainers—these weren’t bad or unskilled people just because their dogs weren’t progressing. But these people had invested so much time and energy and money into their dogs, they could no longer detach their egos and look at the end goal of disaster search. They were missing the forest for the trees. They say great humans are too often admired only in retrospect—who knew that applied to great dogs!
In terms of getting Topa trained, the writing was on the wall. She was getting older and beyond the best time to learn new behaviors. I knew something had to change.
IN 1991, I switched groups again. Every month, I made the drive up to Bakersfield, California, to meet with a group known as the California Swiss Search Dog Association. I was relieved to find a more progressive atmosphere, focused on furthering the dogs’ abilities. They were a smaller group of motivated people, and they adhered to the Swiss disaster search standards, one of the highest standards at the time. The group actually seemed to move toward achieving them. My relief was short-lived.
It didn’t take me too many two-hour drives to understand that at the once-a-month pace we were training, Topa might be a certified search dog by the time she reached her Golden years. I can’t say at the time I had an accurate notion of the impact search dogs could have on a disaster—I wouldn’t until Oklahoma City—but I wanted a competent search dog before I hit my Golden years.
Some of the more serious members of the group felt the same. The group’s leader used his connections in Switzerland to organize a contingent of Swiss disaster search dog handlers to come visit for a few days and run us through a boot camp of sorts. The Swiss handlers were more than happy to come help our group out, impart their knowledge, and do some import-tax-free shopping for climbing gear at the California-based Patagonia company. We made great progress, and we repeated the boot camp the following year. By 1992, Topa was retired and I had a very young Murphy by my side. Murphy and I ate up the training. In the few weeks the Swiss trainers were with us, I learned more than I did in my entire career as a handler.
Murphy started gaining momentum. It was a treat to see her in her element, searching faster and faster. I knew she was good. The Swiss trainers confirmed she was good. I didn’t want to let my foot off the gas pedal. I decided Murphy needed professional coaching from a trainer who knew dogs inside and out and could leave her ego on the sidelines. The obvious choice was the same woman who’d helped me pick Murphy. She was something of a legend in dog-training circles. Her name was Pluis Davern.
PLUIS (PRONOUNCED “PLOUSE”) greets newcomers delicately and politely with a small hint of an accent, a remnant of her Dutch upbringing, youth in New Zealand, and university in Australia before her arrival in New York in 1964. Her cautious smile and testing-the-water small talk first give the impression of shyness. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Pluis started her career in dog training almost as soon as she was born. As a young child in 1945 Holland, as the chaos of World War II subsided, she found a strong German Shepherd as a reliable companion. As early as she can remember, she was fascinated with how dogs learned. So she did some learning of her own.
The pages of Konrad Lorenz’s Man Meets Dog became her bible. Her passion never waned. A casual sit-down discussion recounting a dog’s behavior often results in Pluis launching herself out of her chair with animated descriptions. She is quick to comment on how she would be up at 6:00 a.m. and training dogs for free if she could still feed her family.
Her passion translated professionally. In 1967 she started her own training business, which would become Sundowners Kennels, near Santa Cruz, California. She quickly branched into several types of dog training, rooted in her insatiable appetite for knowledge about dogs. I hesitate to call her a dog whisperer as it would almost sell her skills short.
She is a dog communicator. She has trained show dogs, hunting dogs (referred to as gun dogs), field trial dogs, police dogs, and search dogs of all varieties. She has trained champions and won titles. Early in her career, she put on a full-spectrum gun dog seminar and exposé—one of the first of its kind—so eye-opening for those in the sport it was written up in numerous magazines and even a book. She has been awarded “Trainer of the Year” by Dogs in Review, and “Breeder of the Year” by the American Kennel Club.
She has judged for both the American Kennel Club and the Westminster Dog Show. She often travels worldwide as a guest judge at field trials and show dog championships. In short, she knew what the hell she was doing.
After so much success in the show and gun dog communities, Pluis decided to try to give something back. So she took her champion obedience and field trial dog and partnered with a local vet to train him as a SAR dog. The shift in focus wasn’t difficult as much of field trials and SAR share idiosyncrasies. Pluis herself was a certified search dog handler and had deployed locally in support of small disasters. I couldn’t think of a better partner in crime.
THE FIRST TIME I showed up at Pluis’s kennel near Santa Cruz she had me run through a few commands with the dog. I finished what I thought was a flawless routine of basic obedience and looked at her for what I expected would be glowing praise.
She gave me an amused smile and with the humor that always sneaks into conversations, said, “Well, your dog’s got you well trained.”
That didn’t sound like praise to me. I started to worry. I needed to get my dog up to speed for the certification test.
“Go away,” Pluis said with a smile. “I’ll work with the dog for a month. Then we’ll see.”
So I did. When I came back, it was like I had a different dog. Pluis had turned on a light for me. I began to understand what she meant by the dog training me. In an effort to get the dog to succeed, a handler will subconsciously compensate for the dog in certain behaviors.
For example, if I gave Murphy a sit command, maybe she would start to sit, yet her haunches not actually touch the ground, but since she got the main idea of the command I would still reward her. And while cutting corners might slide by in obedience training, on a real search it could amount to missed victims. It was a lesson I would apply to Murphy to turn my spunky Black Lab into a searching machine.
By 1993, thanks to Pluis’s guidance and training, Murphy was excelling on the rubble pile. I could tell what an incredible asset Pluis would be to a search organization. She became my first stop for everything. I would drive the five hours up to Sundowners Kennels, feeling like I’d uncovered buried treasure.
I figured everyone from the search groups would be thrilled to soak in her wisdom. I brought my new skills and my dog’s ever-growing success back to the search group. I expected a warm reception. What I got surprised me, to say the least. My suggestions for bringing in Pluis to train the group full-time were ignored.
Training ideas I knew worked for my dog were dismissed, especially by the upper ranks of our organization, as if they did not want to cede any power in any form to another training ideology. I was flabbergasted. Why, I thought, if it is for the greater good, would anyone even think of standing in the way?
When I brought the situation up to Pluis, she nodded as if she knew the scenario all too well. “You know,” she said with a sad smile, “in the show ring, I had a lot of friends until I started winning.” The numbers didn’t lie. Under the California SAR Dog Confederation, the seven subgroups had produced only one dog at an advanced level in 1994, and subsequent years hadn’t seen much better results.
In my opinion, the people were failing, not the dogs. I was not willing to accept that. So I did what I had to do and started my own group. It was the precursor to the Search Dog Foundation, but it held the same general principles I would later adopt for the foundation.
The few individuals from other groups who wanted to share in my new knowledge followed me. Pluis became our sage adviser and go-to trainer. She affectionately called me “the little bulldozer” because all I did was push forward. What neither of us could see was how intertwined we were to become over the next two decades and what we would accomplish together.