Wofford professor Richard Wallace watches dog owners who send their beloved pets off to obedience school and shakes his head.
“Those people are missing out on all the fun,” he says. “When you train your own dog, you develop a sense of teamwork. Every minute you spend with your dog you are training it somehow.”
He should know. Wallace has three black Labrador retrievers, aged 10, 8 and 3, with whom he spends a good deal of his free time training every week. Why black labs?
“Black labs are not necessarily the most intelligent dogs, but they are easy to train,” explains Wallace. “That’s what it’s about. It’s not about making the dog do things. It’s about using what the dog wants to get what you want. You can almost see the light bulb turn on. The dog sees that there is some action it can take that will get it what it wants. You are teaching the dog to learn.”
It all began with Anna, now 10. Wallace trained her in hunter retriever work as well as some dog agility skills.
Then he started teaching those same agility skills to Spot, so named because “I too often found myself saying ‘Anna’ through clenched teeth, incorrectly using her name aversely, and I knew I couldn’t say Spot that way.”
Spot, now 8, competed in March of this year at the American Kennel Club National Agility Championships. Out of 260 of the top dogs in the country, she finished 50th.
Then came Tick, the 3 year old. Tick is moving into another realm of training, one that is as honorable as it is impressive. She is learning the ropes of search-and-rescue. While you may associate other breeds with this activity (think of the searches for victims at the World Trade Center or after earthquakes), Wallace says black labs are very good candidates.
“Labs are good at search-and-rescue because they don’t frighten the victims the way bigger dogs might,” he says.
And search-and-rescue is a good activity for labs, as it brings out their playful nature despite its serious nature.
“Search-and-rescue is kind of like hide-and-seek for the dog and the handler,” says Wallace. “It’s fun for both of us, like a return to childhood.”
Speaking of childhood, one of the applications of search-and-rescue is finding missing children. As Wallace says, “think of Lassie barking because Timmy fell into the well.” Many searches, however, do involve adults…lost hikers or despondent people (maybe even an Alzheimer sufferer) who has wandered off.
Tick isn’t quite there yet. She will start barking when she finds a “victim,” but has yet to learn to bark continuously until help gets there.
Wallace, who taught an Interim class on training dogs in January, is working with Foothills Search and Rescue, headquartered in Simpsonville, S.C.
“We’re lucky to have two search-and-rescues in this area,” says Wallace. “They’re both very professional organizations that put a lot of emphasis on making sure that the operational members are highly trained and competent at what they’re doing. I ended up with Foothills because they are the ones I happened to meet first.
“It was a chance meeting. During the Interim class one of my students knew someone at Search and Rescue. We got in touch with them about doing a demonstration for our students. They brought one of their cadaver dogs and took him out in a field where the dog located some bones in a field of snow.”
Then Tick was introduced to the Search and Rescue team.
“The team leader met Tick and was really impressed with her drive and focus,” says Wallace. “No surer way to get the heart of a dog owner than to speak in a complimentary way about one of their dogs. They kind of captivated me with flattery.”
Soon, Tick was going over to training sessions with Wallace as a volunteer, who started out playing a victim.
So far, so good as far as Tick’s training. That, says Wallace, is a byproduct of his training theories.
“I believe in positive reinforcement,” he says. “Negative reinforcement won’t get you very far. You want the dog to be willing to learn new behaviors and try new things.
“Tick is really toy motivated. She’s obsessed with tennis balls. When we started out, the victim would show her the tennis ball, then run away and hide. Tick would then go find him.
“The whole thing has been a seamless process. I keep waiting for the inevitable plateau, but she has so much drive for it. A lot of times people tend to push a dog too far too fast, and I try hard to avoid that. You want to train a dog, not test it. Testing it involves failure. You don’t want the dog to fail.”
It’s not obedience school, after all.