Pluis did not need much convincing to get on board with training shelter dogs to be search dogs. The obsessive prey drive that made the dogs unmanageable in an average family’s living room was exactly what she wanted in a potential search dog. So in early 1996, I delivered Ana, Dusty, and Harley—my brilliant misfits—to Pluis, hoping for the same transformation she’d engineered with Murphy.
Unlike me, who didn’t exactly share their sense of humor, Pluis loved Goldens. Pluis had adopted one with an impressive lineage as the family dog when they moved to California. Pluis knew how to handle the energy and trained her Golden into a champion obedience dog.
Pluis learned how deeply hunting was embedded in retriever genetics, so she learned how to do it herself. For Christmas, her husband bought her a Beretta 12-gauge shotgun. Pluis was ecstatic, but her family in Holland didn’t share her enthusiasm. You got an instrument of death at Christmastime? was her mother’s horrified response. Undeterred, Pluis bred the dog and trained one of her puppies into a champion gun dog and field trial dog.
When Pluis found out my pilot program dogs were all Goldens, she was overjoyed. She sees them as thinking dogs, but in their own unique way. Where Labradors and Border Collies usually stay well within the rules and follow a specific pattern of behavior, Goldens will adjust their behavior depending how they feel in the moment. She admiringly refers to them as the “anarchists of the dog world.” If anyone knew how to channel the special “anarchy” of a Golden into something special in itself, it was her.
Pluis structured her search dog training in a manner similar to that for a field trial dog. After all, they’re both hunting and retrieving in a sense, and both types of dogs have to be strictly controlled.
The first phase of training was a calming stage consisting of basic obedience training—simple commands and tasks to establish a structured routine for the dogs. For these intelligent dogs, basic obedience was something they could accomplish easily and establish a base to build on. For Dusty and Harley, this was also a great opportunity to beef up their confidence. Like a pro basketball player working on dribbling, they could develop confidence in fundamentals that would translate into confidence in the advanced stages.
Basic obedience also was an outlet for the dogs’ endless energy. Ana was the key benefactor here—every morning a small nuclear reactor spun to life in her chest. If she wasn’t allowed to defuse, you’d have a small nuclear meltdown on your hands. Pluis had the leash bruises to prove it.
The other element of the first training phase was to get the dogs familiar with the unstable and unpredictable environment of a disaster site. This meant exposing the dogs to different surfaces and obstacles. As Pluis puts it, “They need to be relaxed enough to stand on their pads, not their claws, and shift weight on rubble if it moves. This is the best way to prevent injuries. Properly trained dogs can walk on nails and broken glass and stay safe even without booties.”
We didn’t have rubble piles to work with, but we did have a multitude of surfaces and obstacles. Pluis’s training area was something of a doggy circus ring. There were simple obstacles—wide tunnels with open ends, and horizontal ladders with round rungs that lay on the ground. There were advanced obstacles—curving tunnels with no clear opening or exit, A-frame ramps, teeter-totters, elevated ladders, and balance beams. Then there were the hero-level obstacles.
First was a steep ladder with narrow rungs, approaching a seventy-five-degree incline. These ladders would lead to a balance beam that would make a seasoned gymnast cringe—less than four inches wide with a six-foot drop on either side. Next was a sway bridge consisting of a two-by-four suspended by chains a few feet high; the bridge would rock back and forth once a dog mounted it. This obstacle was more of a psychological challenge for a dog used to being on solid ground.
But the final obstacle was what really separated the dogs from the puppies. Known as “the wobbly monster,” it was an elevated bridge-like contraption, but instead of a walkway, it had separate boards as footholds, no wider than a quarter. The footholds stuck up like uneven piano keys, and each would teeter back and forth depending on how pressure was applied. The obstacle required mastery of the instability of the suspended bridge, the fine accuracy of the fire ladder, and the awkwardness of a balance beam all at the same time, while adding in an element of timing.
A dog not only had to move correctly, but also had to move at the right time.
Each of these obstacles matched an element a search dog would see on a rubble pile. A handler often sends out a search dog on its own—dogs are much faster without a clumsy human hanging onto the leash, and need to have the skills and confidence to move with ease independently. The ladders in the obstacle course corresponded to fire ladders used in rescues to ascend to multistory buildings.
The dogs would need to climb them. Tunnels matched the natural tunnels often formed by voids in rubble. A human couldn’t fit in these tight quarters, so it was up to the dog. The balance beams and the sway bridge corresponded to I beams or narrow pathways spanning gaps in a rubble pile. Balance on these obstacles would allow swift passage over rubble of varying heights and prevent dangerous falls.
Even the teeter-totters and the wobbly monster serve a pragmatic purpose. Very rarely are all pieces of debris on a rubble pile stable. They buck, break, or shift under varying loads, and on earthquake sites, rescuers often face aftershocks that cause the same effect. If a dog leaps onto an unsecured slab of concrete, maybe with another piece of debris acting as a fulcrum, that slab will start to tip like a teeter-totter. If the dog panics and tries to bail out, she could land in an injury-causing position or a more dangerous place. If the dog fails to exercise patience and tries to charge forward, she could face a long drop on the other end.
However, if the dog recognizes the shift, remains calm, and uses measured timing to guide her steps forward, she can simply ride the teeter-totter down to a smooth landing. That is the bottom line of all these obstacles: teaching the dogs to use their innate abilities to keep themselves safe. If we didn’t address it thoroughly in training under controlled conditions, the results in the aftermath of a real disaster could be, well, disastrous.
PLUIS STARTED OBEDIENCE training with the pilot program dogs immediately, which was when she hit her first problem: Ana had a bit of an attitude.
For Ana, obedience training was old news from her days as an assistance dog, and she didn’t mind letting people know that the commands were not at the top of her to-do list. When Pluis gave a heel command, Dusty and Harley complied without much fuss. Ana, on the other hand, would give Pluis a stare like I have to do that?
Pluis would stand firm. “Ana, heel.”
A disgusted look from Ana. Really?
“Ana, I want you to heel.”
Aw, couldn’t we just go out there and play?
And so the drama would play out. (Despite the theatrics, Ana actually would not take the cake as prima donna. That title would later fall to an intelligent Border Collie with black tents for ears named Gypsy. When Gypsy was first introduced to the basic obedience commands, the black-and-white pup would actually turn her back to Pluis and face the other direction.)
But Ana could not be doing her own thing on a rubble pile, so Pluis had to keep her grounded. She arranged Ana’s training like a mother corralling a rowdy child—Ana would get to go out and play, just as soon as she did her chores. And, with the dog equivalent of I’ll-do-it-but-I’m-not-going-to-like-it, Ana complied and improved. Eventually, all three dogs learned to love the program’s structure and the opportunity to get some of their angst out every day. As long as each dog’s foibles were properly addressed—the gas pedal for Dusty and Harley, the brake for Ana—Pluis saw she wouldn’t have any problem obedience-wise with the dogs.
Exposing them to different surfaces, obstacles, and environments was a bit more difficult. Most dogs lack proprioception, meaning they are not spatially aware of where their own limbs are in relation to the surface they are on. To traverse unnatural obstacles like ladders and teeter-totters, the dog must be taught to actually recognize, yes, that’s my rear right paw and it needs to go here, and so forth. We already knew all three dogs were incredible physical specimens with off-the-chart agility, so it just would be a matter of coaching their minds to accept the new material.
I do need to clarify. When I say most dogs lack proprioception, I mean most dogs except for Ana, the Tarzan of the canine world. She blew through the beginner obstacles without breaking a sweat, probably because they were nothing compared to the trees she’d scaled in her youth. She would literally prance across the horizontal ladders without any type of instruction, as if she was doing it for fun. Her boastful attitude might’ve annoyed her kennelmates, but Pluis was at least glad to move past the too-cool-for-school attitude Ana had begun training with. Pluis again focused more on slowing Ana down a bit—ensuring each movement was measured and repeatable—more than actually coaching her in new movements.
Dusty wasn’t too far behind. She had wild energy, but needed a little more coaching from Pluis and an underhand delivery of any corrections. If you raised your voice at all, even if it wasn’t directed at Dusty, she would cringe away, worried that somehow she’d done something wrong. Still, one of the godly traits of dogs is their ability to believe in the best of their handler’s intentions. With Pluis’s gentle guidance and every successful task, Dusty’s confidence grew. Soon she matched Ana on skill across the beginner obstacles. She was going to be a force to be reckoned with on the advanced obstacles. Pluis had no real concerns for either dog when the time came to graduate to the wobbly monster.
Having started about a month behind, Harley was not as warp-speed as his sisters, but was still physically gifted. He would glide over the small rock fields and other terrain on Pluis’s land without a second thought. But as with a major league ball player who spends too long on deck before batting, when it came to the obstacles, Harley would start thinking too much and psyche himself out. The extra attention and specific commands would stir memories of abuse. The yellow dog with the Golden soul—he knew he could, he just wasn’t sure if he should.
Pluis knew exactly how to handle such a case. When it came time for Harley to cross the horizontal ladder, footing was not an issue; Pluis would build him up the whole way.
“Good boy, Harley! Goooood boy!”
“Great, Harley! Such a goooood boy!”
Three steps. A little faster.
With copious amounts of tender praise, Harley made it across the ladder and through all the other beginner obstacles. He became faster, eventually keeping up with his sisters. And when Harley got something, he really got it. His confidence became less fragile. Pluis was certain she could use the same method to get him over any obstacle. In the corner of the agility course, the wobbly monster loomed.
THE BASIC OBEDIENCE and obstacles phase continued for a few weeks. There wasn’t—and really couldn’t be—a set time line. The dogs would only move on to the next phase of training when they were ready. But they were getting close.
Pluis kept a training journal for each dog and would rate him or her on specific tasks day by day using a simple system of stars. One star meant the dog needed work. Four stars meant the dog had the task mastered brilliantly. A scrawled ARRHHHHHH was, well, self-explanatory (recently, she has considered moving to emojis). Pluis delighted in giving four stars—it meant her training was working and the dogs were progressing. Ana and Dusty, straight-A students from the onset, were hitting four stars immediately. After overcoming some initial hesitation, Harley was acing the basics as well and even giving his sisters a run for their money on some of the obstacles. Pluis began seeing four-stars across the board and knew it was time for the next phase.
THE NEXT BLOCK of the curriculum involved a forced fetch, or what is sometimes known as the induced retrieve. Pluis would now harness the dogs’ excessive prey drive, the obsession over the toy, and shape it into a usable tool on a disaster site. She would teach them that to find one victim is good, but finding two is even better. Such a conditioned response had to be second nature before a dog got out on a rubble pile without a “bribe” of food treats—you couldn’t have dogs deciding they don’t feel like searching because you forgot your hindquarter of lamb. This phase would also build on the fundamentals, adding more obedience and advanced obstacles.
The casual observer might think that once dogs have mastered a basic obedience skill in their kennel they can perform the task anywhere. After all, human children who learn to eat at the table in the house have no issue eating in a restaurant. This type of transference does not apply to dogs. Dogs cannot extrapolate an experience from one environment into another without training. If you teach a puppy to sit in your house, he’ll eventually learn it on command. But take that same puppy out on a walk and try the same command. The first few times the pup will likely have no idea what you want him to do. The dog must be trained on the same task in multiple environments. Although my dogs were sharp, they still had to build up that body of knowledge, so Pluis took them through the same obedience in different situations at different times.
The continual obedience training and exposure to the obstacle course was making a huge impact. All three dogs smashed this phase to pieces; four stars across the board. All three dogs were confident in their abilities. Most important, the dogs loved what they were doing. Counterintuitive as it may seem to humans, disaster search is a simple game for the dog—find person, get toy. Nobody wants to play a boring game, dogs especially. Dogs don’t understand the concept of working for a period of time and then relaxing on the weekends. As Pluis put it, “The dog is not thinking, ‘I’m going to rescue humanity,’ he’s thinking, ‘Someone out there has a toy!’” We couldn’t convince the dog to work hard for weeks on end because at the end of it all he’d get two-weeks’ paid vacation in Cabo. Dogs live only in the moment. It’s probably something we humans can learn a thing or two from. But in terms of search training, the pace of the instruction had to be doled out in such a way that the dogs were constantly entertained and engaged.
Pluis instituted a proven-yet-not-widely-employed method for enhancing the dogs’ comprehension and attention. Many are probably familiar with the concept of latent learning in humans—the idea that it takes time for new teachings to sink in. It’s where the expression let me sleep on it comes from. Latent learning also applies to dogs. Pluis would take Dusty and teach her a new skill. Once Dusty mastered the command, Pluis would put her in a crate or kennel—somewhere with no stimulus—and let the lesson sink in before pulling her out again. This technique is often overlooked because, at first, it takes much longer to see results. But we were training dog Olympians, not weekend warriors.
Pluis’s time investment in the dogs paid off. The previous phase was ground school, now it was time for the dogs to start flying. And fly they did. As more time passed, the dogs’ learning expanded exponentially.
Soon Pluis knew the dogs were ready to proceed to the final stage. The dogs were screaming along at this point, on pace to finish in about seven months. This time line was unheard of. If the dogs had been training in karate, they would’ve entered as white belts, and now, a few months later, be prepping to test for their black belt. We weren’t letting the momentum carry us away, but up to this point, Pluis had yet to see any signs of slowing in the dogs. Her only real learning point was that she’d set her initial expectations of the dogs too low. So she borrowed some of my inner bulldozer and pushed forward.
THE FINAL PHASE brought everything together. The dogs would combine all their obedience, agility, and search skills and apply them to the most challenging terrain and obstacles the kennel could offer. The dogs would have to perform these tasks based on signals beyond verbal commands—blows from a whistle or hand signals—given from a handler some distance away (the handler points left, the dogs go left, and so forth). Finally, once a buried victim had been located, the dogs would be required to perform a bark alert—a sustained bark—until the handler reached the location, and not begin searching again until instructed to do so.
To pass the final phase of training, the dogs would have to negotiate all the advanced obstacles. The dogs had been exposed to obstacles of increasing difficulty, but this phase had one key difference—the obstacle had to be performed under complete control, meaning the dog had to mount and dismount safely and on command, stop at any time during the run, and even turn around and go in reverse on certain obstacles. If Ana, Dusty, and Harley could complete these tasks consistently, Pluis would “graduate” them and we’d pair them with their future handlers. We were setting a record training pace for 1996, but this phase was where everything had to come together.
Over the next few months, Pluis began adding more of the final elements into the training. She put the dogs up on a platform at a distance and ran them through the hand signal commands. The dogs picked it up right away. Bark alert after finding a “buried” victim? Ana, Dusty, and Harley had no problems. In fact, they weren’t having any difficulties. They were getting faster, more precise. The advanced obstacles were tiny pebbles under their paws. In terms of agility, Pluis had never seen anything like Ana, and Dusty and Harley weren’t far behind. Composed and under control, Dusty was climbing up and down ladders. Harley was strutting across the sway bridge, forward, backward, it did not matter, his head held high with confidence. They were banging on the graduation door. There wasn’t much more Pluis could throw at them except the wobbly monster.