My search-and-rescue trailing dog, Trooper, began to lose his eyesight in August 2012 from a degenerative eye condition called pannus, also known as keratitis. He is 8 years old and in good health otherwise, but with the steady loss of his eyesight, it was time to retire him.
We had not done any SAR training since then. I don’t know who missed it more, me or Trooper. So, when a friend – who is a SAR handler himself and one of Trooper’s favorite trail-layers – asked if he could borrow a GPS unit from me, I said, “Sure, if you’ll lay a trail for my dog.”
New medicine has restored almost all of Trooper’s sight. However, several weeks ago, it was almost a total loss. I think that it was much like looking through a thick sheer curtain, but the lower two-thirds of his cornea had become so involved that Trooper couldn’t see items at his feet or straight in front of him and just movement and shadows above.
“Blind trails” in training usually mean that the handler doesn’t know where the “victim” has gone, not that the dog can’t see. The trail was going to be short and easy – turns but no obstacles. Trooper would not be able to see things like limbs on the ground and such. He could stumble even encountering small ones.
My friend phoned me from his truck when he got to my place, and I talked him through where I wanted him to go.
From his truck, he walked to a downed tree behind an outbuilding near the house, then turned and angled across the yard behind the barn to the path that is mowed around the perimeter of the pasture. That path loops down around a small thicket of trees and back up to a gap in the fence. My friend turned right through the gap and was standing near the fence line about 20 feet from the gap.
I put Trooper’s harness on him inside the house. We came out, and as he got to the edge of the carport and out onto the driveway, Trooper gave himself a head-to-tail shake – a sure sign that my dog was ready and eager to work.
We were going to scent off of the truck. As Trooper and I began to circle around the vehicle, I saw Trooper’s nose turn a little to the left; he had hit my friend’s trail. I was going to switch Trooper’s lead from his collar to his harness if he had been prepared to take off from that, but he moved a few feet away and did another full shake. I changed his lead to the harness then and pointed to the driver’s side door. Trooper could see the movement of my hand because it was higher than his head. “Check it!” “Go find!”
No doubt that Trooper had the trail, but he was hesitant to start out. He went a few steps, then stopped, brought his head up, looking in the direction that the scent led him. It was the first time he had trailed anyone without being able to see clearly where he was going. With a little word from me – “get to work” – his nose was back on the ground, and we were off at a steady pace. Until he ran into the tree. He didn’t hit it hard, just seemed surprised that it was there.
Trooper halted just a moment. The breeze had pushed the scent to the left of the tree. Trooper made a small cast around and caught the turn and we were off again, but as he got out into the expanse of the yard, he left the trail, moving into the wind.
I think he was catching some air scent at that point. But I also think that there weren’t any “landmarks” for Trooper to see. He seemed a little disoriented. I was keeping tension on the lead, a line of communication between a handler and a dog: I’m here, Trooper. You’re not alone. I said, “Where’d he go?”
Trooper fell back on what he knew best. He made a big arc back into the trail from where we had been and hit scent again, but overshot the trail by a few feet. He stopped. Head up. And there was this “Oh, yeah!” moment. The doubt left, and he began running in the direction of the trail in an angle that would intersect my friend’s path. Got it! Head down and Trooper was pulling me along. His head came up a few times, detecting air scent from the subject, but I didn’t let Trooper cut any corners. That would have taken us into the thicket, and Trooper couldn’t see to maneuver through the trees.
As we came up the hill, Trooper was whining in anticipation of the find. He paused a moment to make the turn to the right at the gap, and the subject was within sight, but not for Trooper. It wasn’t until Trooper was within a couple of feet of him before my dog made a full-fledged indication that the “victim” was there. My friend was ready with treats and a big, happy greeting for Trooper.
Once a trailing dog, always a trailing dog.
A lot of Trooper’s eyesight has returned, but not to the point where he can be deployed. And this handler is still learning lessons: Trust your dog, because your dog trusts you.