Monday, September 08, 2008

Woof

Vicki here on Monday.

In Valley of the Lost, the second Smith and Winters book coming to a bookstore near you in February, RCMP Constable Adam Tocek has a slightly larger part than he did in In the Shadow of the Glacier. As well as carrying a bit of a torch for Molly, he is the Mountie’s dog handler. All I know about dog handling is how to grip the end of the leash as my mutt Shenzi lunges for a passing Rottweiler. Thus, as Mary Jane Maffini described in yesterday’s entry, research is required.

You can go to the library to take out a book on fashion in the 1820’s; Google to see who was the mayor of New York in 1902 or if Bonn is east or west of Berlin, or the dates of the Hundred Years’s War. If you’re writing history you rely on books and newspapers (Tell me, Uncle Fred, did you have guns in the Hundred Years’ War?)
But real-life stuff is sometimes a bit trickier. You can find plenty of books on dog psychology, or dog training, but for the real nitty-gritty of working with dogs every day, and using dogs in a role like policing you really need to go to the source.

One of the great advantages of living in a small town: I mentioned to a friend that I was writing a police procedural. She told me that there is a retired police dog handler living nearby. Just so happens that he runs boarding kennels where I take the aforementioned mutt!

Bingo!

We had coffee last week, and I sure learned a lot. Here are a couple of interesting things you may not know:

If you need to start a search for a missing person, say a child lost in the woods or an elderly person who has wandered off, DON’T immediately call up all the neighbours to help. For the dog to be any use, he has to be able to find the scent of the person in question which will be lost if two hundred well-meaning neighbours have charged off in all directions. Unlike popular belief, the dogs don’t sniff at a piece of someone’s clothing and then chase the scent. (I had to rewrite a scene once I learned that). If you give the dog, say, a child’s pyjamas, the dog doesn’t know what scent on those pyjamas to follow. Say the dad’s a heavy smoker – the pyjamas are full of the smell of cigarettes and the dog traces the scent straight to the source – Dad. If there is a clearly defined starting point to take the dog – such as a footprint in the ground, the dog can pick up the scent at that point and then follow it. But without a starting scent to pick up, all he does is follow the scent most recently laid down. Thus if the route the lost person has taken is criss-crossed by others, the dog is pretty much useless.

When searching for a suspect, say someone who stole a car and abandoned it on a country road, the police set up cars at all the access points with lights flashing and the odd siren going off while the dog tracks the bad guys. Why all the light and noise? Because panic changes body odour, making the bad guy easier for the dog to locate.

Police dogs know two kinds of ‘find’. They can hunt down the bad guys and corner them, attack if the person does anything other than freeze, and they can track a lost child – a friendly find – and lick the child’s face when found (sometimes they pee on them!)

My source (I won’t use his name because I haven’t asked permission yet) doesn’t believe in using treats in training. The dog’s only reward, he says, should be to make you, his master, happy. If they’re working for anything other than to make you happy, then you’ve lost a vital motivation.

Excuse me while I take Shenzi out back and train her to be a top-class search and rescue dog.

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