K-9 Training: When The Lost Are Found
Handlers must find balance between guiding and
Susan Starr (left) listens closely as Cody Chartier
gives instructions on where Starr’s dog is going and
where the scent bag is for him to sniff before he
takes off on his search.
Vice commander of Tonto Rim Search and Rescue, Gary
Hall, listens intently to the instructions.
Photo by Andy
Abby Silva Roundup Intern
K-9 handler Susan Starr had a split-second decision
to make. Her dog, Ringo, had veered suddenly from
the scent of the person he sought, hiding down the
hill in a thicket during this training exercise in
Rumsey Park on Tuesday.
Ringo had been following the faint scent of the
missing person along a trail marked so that Starr
could make sure Ringo stayed on the track. But
suddenly, Ringo lifted his head from the ground,
looked down the slope working his wet black nose
furiously. Now, he’d started to turn off the scent
to head downhill. Was he after a rabbit? A
tantalizing trace of elk? The scent of another dog?
Should Starr trust Ringo’s instinct — or put him
back on the marked trail.
She calculated the odds and studied her dog —
remembering his alert intelligence a few weeks
earlier when he’d held tenaciously to the scent of a
lost Boy Scout in Globe.
Ringo found the boy.
Shed’ give him his head now.
So she let him bound down the slope.
Ringo went straight to the “missing” man, following
his scent on the air instead of on the ground —
cutting precious time off the search.
Dogs are more than man’s best friends when it comes
to search and rescue and K-9 units, they’re both
co-workers and companions.
The effectiveness of this cross-species team depends
as much on the trainer’s ability to read the dog’s
thoughts and personality as it does on the
Toulouse locates the spot where the two lost hikers
left their bag, as Susan Starr encourages his
success and scores this as a find.
Photo by Andy Towle
All that was on display Tuesday as K-9 handlers from
the Department of Corrections in Winslow and the
Tonto Rim Search and Rescue (TRSAR) paired up
Tuesday at Rumsey Park to practice several training
drills with their dogs, including finding “lost”
Unlike the training procedures in other fields,
working with dogs in these areas is an ongoing
process said Susan Starr, TRSAR member and K-9
The K-9 training exercises not only provide the dogs
and their handlers with constant practice, but also
offer residents a firsthand look at search and
rescue missions and dog-and-handler relations.
Unlike most police dogs, search and rescue dogs
don’t have to be any particular breed. For example,
the TRSAR dogs on scene Tuesday included an
Australian shepherd, a blue-tick hound and a
Similarly, search and rescue dogs come from a
variety of places, including the Humane Society and
But no matter the dogs breed or origin, trainers
look for essential characteristics. The most
Furthermore, the age and personality of the dog
determine when it can begin training.
Starr explained that she started Ringo, a
3-year-old, when he was 10 weeks old, while,
Toulouse, the blue-tick hound, wasn’t ready to start
until he turned 2. Each dog now excels in different
fields, according to their talents.
For example, Ringo, was accredited with finding a
lost Boy Scout down in Globe a couple of years ago,
The main drill exercised Tuesday tested the dogs’
ability to catch a scent and lead their handlers
through a forested area to find the “lost” person —
a TRSAR volunteer. The correct trail was marked so
the handler would know when the dog got off course.
In such situations, the handler directed the leashed
dog in a “half-moon” or “sweep” near where the right
trail lay, without telling the dog where to go.
Starr explained that it was important to find the
balance between guiding the dog and following the
dog’s instincts. Starr illustrated this concept when
she allowed Ringo to follow the scent he caught from
a downhill wind and make a shortcut in the trail,
where he found the “lost” person.
“They are trained to understand the scent and, as
they’re searching for somebody, locating and
relocating that scent, until they find the person,”
A K-9 handler in difficult situations must maintain
calm and patient behavior because the dogs
immediately sense any sign of frustration. One of
the biggest ways for the dogs to mess-up is for the
handler to make mistakes. The bond between the
handler and the dog is important because the dog
sees the situation as not work but a big game.
“The hardest thing for a handler is to be able to
read the dog ... it’s one of the hardest thing I’ve
ever done in my life ... it’s not easy,” concluded