Nala´s World #6: What being a SAR dog is all about.

Hey peeps from around the globe, here is Vizsla Nala woofing to you again. Did you ever wonder what my job, as an SAR dog is all about? Well, my mommy was diligent and wrote an article on it. So I told her – why not share it with my blogger friends?

So – here you go: Alert gaze, tense body: Nala wants to get on with the work. The 4-year-old female Vizsla points her nose to the wind - she’s already checking the scent. When her handler Siv-Brit Kühl slips the vest over her she knows it’s time to search for a person. “Apport Rescue” is the handler’s command to start and Nala surges ahead - nothing can hold her back now.

Today’s search is a training exercise for Nala. But in 2014 it could be for real because she and her owner are training to become an active area search team. The training takes two to three years, after which the dog and handler have to pass a comprehensive test. They are then members of the rescue dog unit and will be called upon by the police and fire brigade. They are always alerted when a person goes missing, for example for hiking accidents; children lost in the woods or sick and disorientated elderly people. Working with a dog rescue unit is more than a hobby: you have to be prepared for a callout 365 days a year, no matter what the weather, time of day or how long it might take. All this is done on a voluntary basis alongside your “normal” job.

Meanwhile Nala has searched a large section of the woods. She is running large figures of eight around her handler. The bell attached to her special harness is ringing, telling Siv-Brit Kühl where her dog is working at that moment. She has to trust her Vizsla to find and point out every person otherwise they won’t be rescued. Equally, Nala has to trust her owner and believe that the search could bring rewards. In principle both are hunting together – just not for game, but for “missing persons”.

At present there are not many hunting dogs certified as rescue dogs in Germany. But slowly the potential of pointing breeds, such as the Vizsla, is starting to be recognised. A sensitive nose, willingness to work, biddability teamed with independence, as well as a systematic and steady search style are the strengths they bring to rescue dog work. For owners who do not hunt their dogs this kind of work provides a good outlet for their natural traits. Training a Vizsla as a rescue dog is sometimes challenging. Their intelligent yet sensitive natures are not always receptive to the classical training methods from the German Shepherd Dog arena. A Vizsla is a fast learner and unforgiving of mistakes. A Vizsla wants to understand why it has to do something – dry repetitions lead to boredom.

Nala is fighting her way through thorny fern undergrowth. The physical hardships of rescue work also need practice. She and her handler train twice a week. In addition there are the real rescues, as well as additional courses in subjects such as first aid, radio communication and orienteering. Area search dogs are employed when a person is missing in large, obscured terrain. They are considerably quicker at the job than police search units and trained to follow any kind of human scent. Their fine noses really excel here - with more than 200 million olfactory cells they are approximately 44 times more sensitive than that of a human. Suddenly Nala runs towards her owner. She is carrying an orange stick in her mouth. This tells her owner that Nala has found a person and retrieved this so-called bringsel – in this case a plastic stick. This is a form of alert which suits many hunting dogs that like to retrieve. However, in Germany it is more usual for the dog to stay with the person it finds and bark until the handler arrives.

Nala has now returned to her owner and delivers the reel nicely to her hand. Siv-Brit Kühl says, “Anzeige” (show me) and lets the dog lead her to the find. Sure enough, about 80 meters away the “training victim” is located in the middle of the fern undergrowth. Upon her return the helper praises Nala with “good dog” and opens a tube for her. In the tube is the jackpot: yummy liver pâté! It’s one reason why Nala loves the hunt-a-human game so much - a game that saves lives in an emergency.

Yep – good girl, mommy, well written! I can live with that. I am off to do some stretching and sniffing in the kitchen to stay in shape. 

Woof to you soon, your friend Nala.

Siv and Nala


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