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Dogs have been our most faithful companions since the day their ancestors discovered we would share our food with them if they looked at us with those big, sad eyes. And since that moment, they’ve learned to work with us toward one common goal: survival. Over time, they became our big, fluffy, snuggly best friends, but many dogs still have an instinctual drive to work.
In observance of Labor Day, we spoke with Michael Sarvich, founder of the Midwest Search Dogs organization in Indianapolis, Indiana to learn more about modern day working dogs. Midwest Search Dogs is a non-profit volunteer-run organization providing canine detection services to Indiana and surrounding areas. MWSD provides cadaver recovery, drug detection, and live rescue services with a staff of knowledgeable experts and well-trained pups.
Q: What makes a good working dog?
MS: Basically, the dogs that make terrible pets. They’re extremely high-energy. They are tremendously driven by rewards, whether it’s a toy or food or praise. Good working dogs are definitely NOT skittish or shy; they’re confident and respond well to training.
Q: Are there any particular breeds that make better working dogs than others?
MS: It depends on what type of work they’re doing and where they’re doing it. Beagles, for example, make great dogs for exterminators because they can get into smaller and tighter areas to find pests than, say, a German Shepherd.
There’s the usual; hounds, sport breeds, German Shepherds, Labs, Retrievers – basically the typical search dog you’d probably see on TV. Overall, we look for dogs with a good balance of trainability and stamina. Some breedslearn easily but wear out quickly.
Unfortunately, many breeds that make good working dogs end up in shelters. People watch Game of Thrones and bring home a Husky puppy. Then they realize it’s very hard to feed, house, or exercise them as much as they need and they end up in rescues.
Q: How often and how long do the dogs search when you’re called out? What kind of conditions do they work in?
MS: Well, of course, we hope that we don’t get called out to search. If we’re called, it means something bad happened. But we can go weeks with no call-outs and then have three in a week.
When we go out on a search, the dogs could be out from a few minutes to many hours or even several searches over a few days. We searched a back yard once that was 200 acres. It took us two full days. Other times, we’re on site for 15-20 minutes. Every situation is different. Thick brush is more difficult to search than an open field.
Q: How often do the dogs train?
MS: We train the dogs every Tuesday and every other Sunday, so six times a month for a total of about 30 hours. Some dogs are learning new skills (human remains detection versus live rescue, for example). Some dogs are just learning the trade, and some are keeping their skills sharp.
But outside of that, the handlers train, too. We train in compass navigation, mapping, and other skills the handlers need to pass the certification or recertification requirements.
Q: You hear stories of 9/11 search dogs becoming anxious or upset when they didn’t recover survivors. What kind of toll does thiswork take on the dogs?
MS: Well, the dogs don’t know experience that emotion the same as we do. They don’t get upset when they don’t recover a body or bring home a live rescue. They get upset because they’re thinking “I’ve been working all day and you haven’t thrown my ball once. What gives?”
So when you hear about the 9/11 dogs or similar situations, workers would hide so the dogs could “find” them, get their ball or treat or a good belly rub, then keep working. If the dog goes hours without any kind of reward, he gets irritated and doesn’t want to keep working. They need that incentive sometimes.
And as long as they have that reward, many dogs will search until they collapse. They’re intrinsically motivated, they want to do the job, and many of them will just keep pushing as long as they can. We know the dogs, and if they’re getting to that point, we know to call it a day or give them a rest.
But they absolutely know if we’re going to work. Their body language is different, they’re focused and alert. If we ask “You ready to go to work?” they go NUTS. Their dedication is really remarkable.