One of the most dangerous aspects of handling trailing dogs in a manhunt, be it an escaped felon or a lost person, is running up on that person and landing in his lap. The handler is at an extreme disadvantage, as his focus is on watching and handling the dog, potentially putting himself and his K9 in danger. Sadly, officers and their K-9 partners have been injured or killed because they have failed to train for the one thing that could save them—the proximity alert.
The proximity alert is when the body language of the dog changes as he is on the trail. This is the moment that he senses that he is very close to the subject. The most frequent signs will by slowing down or stopping and looking in a particular direction, then followed by a slight increase in speed. Prick eared dogs will frequently focus their ears together in the direction of the subject. This can happen within a second or less, and if you miss it, you could be in real danger. Before you go out on a real hunt, learn how to recognize your dog’s proximity alert and train for it. Be aware that when he leans into the harness and speeds up, you have already missed the proximity alert.
Keep in mind that any training that you do with your dog becomes muscle memory training. Whatever you practice at home will automatically be done the same in a real search. Now is the time to begin training for the proximity alert, so that when the dog does give a sign, you will see it and be able to take appropriate action at that time. Make it a habit. During training, learn to detect the subtle signals your dog gives when he knows he is close and the subject is in the area. Stop him as soon as you think you see that alert, and before he starts pulling and really intensifying his focus or barking. When you stop him, reel him in. Do not jerk or pull on him, as that will take his focus off the subject and onto you. Put the dog in a down or sit and look in the direction where he indicated. If you were lucky and caught his proximity alerts, he will probably react by going into hyper drive, as he knows the subject is close and he wants to reach him. This training will help you see the proximity alerts easier as the dog will react a little stronger next time.
To train better, video tape your training sessions. Strap on a GoPro HD camera and you will be amazed at the subtle signals you have missed out in the field. Also, if at all possible, train with other people who are familiar with proximity alert indicators. Practice this all of the time and make sure that you do not just do short tracks and run right to the bite sleeve.In time, you will find that you not only can tell the direction, but also the distance of the subject. The key is to make “close” as far away as possible and still get a good direction or logical hiding spot. Keep in mind that proximity alerts are not a given. There may be times and certain circumstances when the dog will not be able to sense that the subject is close. If your dog does alert, stop, take cover, study your surroundings to pick the most likely point of concealment for the subject and call in reinforcements.
With regular practice, you will become very adept at reading your dog’s proximity alert. And you and he will live to track another day.
Learn more about how to recognize and train for proximity alerts and other tracking and trailing dog training in Jeff Schettler’s books at http://www.alpinepub.com/TRAILINGSCENTWORK.html
Photo © Jeff Schettler.