News & Articles

Bridging the Gap

Possibly the most miss-understood and problematic part of the process of training a CARDA dog team is what has become known as the “Gap”. This is the year between the first year puppy course and the second year validation. The handlers now have to bridge that gap by training to the validation standard. This is a surprisingly short amount of time given that a lot of that year doesn’t include winter conditions and, most significantly, the handlers are generally on their own and have to identify and trouble shoot problems with their dogs without the benefit of consistent instruction. Furthermore the handlers are expected to bring a high level of backcountry knowledge and skills to the course.

As CARDA evolves it has been identified that the Gap has been a key stumbling block. Perfectly good puppy teams have showed up to the second course unprepared and, at best at the same level that they left the course the previous year. They have not passed the validation and at worst drop out of the program. This can be considered a tremendous waste of time and resources for both the program and the handler. Some of the reasons involved are

• The handlers were unaware of their own responsibilities independent of the dog during the testing
• The dogs did not learn to search for articles under the snow
• The dogs were not treated as working dogs and/or training was neglected
• The team came to the course with a major problem expecting to solve it during the course
• The handlers came to the course expecting a validation attempt

The first problem was quite common with handlers simply not knowing what the expectations for the test are. With more detail in the next issue suffice to say that the handlers are expected to handle their dog while conducting themselves as if the dog is not their. They have to interview a witness, perform a hasty/beacon search and be able to cover a 100 x 100 metre area in ten minutes on their skis. It is multi-tasking to say the least. The handlers also have to be prepared to pass their backcountry skills test. (This is the last year this aspect will be tested in the second year)

The test incorporates buried articles that simulate the scent of a human. As the puppy course uses primarily live quarries the move to articles has presented problems. It can be difficult for the handlers to get properly scented articles, as they must be from someone other than family. To add to this the validation articles are buried to a depth of seventy-five centimeters. This is a gradual slow process to get the dogs to dig that far down. The handlers have to start immediately after the Puppy course and progress through the spring and be at testing depth by late December (The handlers from the eastern Rockies are especially challenged in that we’re lucky if we get seventy five centimetres of snow in total let alone in the first few months)

One of the most difficult concepts for a new dog handler is finding the balance between between pet and working dog. As the dogs are pups in the first year we emphasize letting them be puppies and to not over do obedience. The problem is that as the dogs we chose are highly driven they often have a dominant streak to them. As they mature they, like most adolescents, begin to test the limits of what they can get away with. Some times the result is a dog team where it is unclear who the Alpha is. The dog will not respond to the handler or will even take the position that all in the family are of lower status than them. When one watches an episode of the many problem dog reality shows this is usually the situation in the case of a destructive aggressive dog. For a first time handler knowing exactly how far to push the dominance issue so that one has a controllable but not handler bound dog is a serious challenge.

The team needs to come to the second course with no major issues and only require fine-tuning. If there is a serious problem such as a dog refusing to pursue and article buried deeply then there probably will not be enough time to rectify the problem within the week. As some of our handlers are in remote areas and not able to access the Instructor corp. this can be a fatal issue.
Handlers also need to come to the validation course understanding that it is a week long evaluation and that they will not even get an attempt at the test until their Instructors deem them ready. Validation is stressful and handlers tend to focus on it to the extent where they become difficult students. The Intermediate Instructors have the responsibility of determining who is ready for the attempt. They know what goes into the validation and are tasked with preparing the handlers. There must be an understanding from the Handlers that they are there to learn and show that they are prepared for the test.

CARDA is now dealing with this difficult gap though information and a restructuring of the process. The Handlers skills in the backcountry now have to be proven before starting with CARDA. It is now mandatory for applicants to have a CAA level 1 Certificate before the initial Spring Course. Along with testing the backcountry skills the day before the Puppy course as opposed to the last day of the validation course this requirement puts the Handler in a position to succeed. By only having to mesh the backcountry skills with the dog handling instead of having to learn all the skills at the same time the Handlers have considerably less on their plates.

A few years ago one of CARDA’s Instructor suggested that the Spring Course be expanded to include the second year handlers. The idea was to give the second year group a chance to have their progress evaluated and a chance to identify major issues. This has proven to be successful to the extent where there is serious consideration to make it mandatory. Handlers know their strengths and weaknesses and receive instruction on how to correct any problems.

Another new innovation for the Spring Course is that the first year candidates are receiving lectures and instruction on how to train the CARDA way as well as the place of the working dog within the family. It is hoped that the dogs will learn their place early in the formulative years and therefore be easier to train.

Even with the new progressions there is one thing that cannot be replaced by technology or a two-day refresher and that is the Handler’s commitment to time and quality training. All the advice in the world will make no difference if the Handler does not put the effort into themselves and their dog. Every new Handler is made aware of the resources that are available to them. The Instructor Cadre makes themselves as available as possible. With our modern forms of communication there is no reason that a Handler be incommunicado with their Instructors.

Having said this we are all well aware that life has a way of changing plans. Some of our handlers are in remote areas with their jobs or where they happen to live. Others have the advantage of living close to each other and an Instructor for occasional training sessions but there are family commitments as well that make coordinating these session an exercise in diplomacy. Simply put CARDA Handlers learn to trouble shoot on their own and to make the necessary arrangements for quality training.

Some bridge the gap successfully some do not however as an Instructor I have been constantly amazed and humbled by the effort I see our Handlers go to. I have known some to make five-hour drives one-way for three hours of training. I have seen family members partake and develop into awesome quarries. I have received and tried to answer countless e-mails and phone calls. I have been privileged to be provided with access to major ski hills for training thanks to no small effort of a Handler employed there. Above all I have witnessed the commitment to not only their own success but to those they train with. To see that sort of character in so many different people is the most fulfilling part of being a CARDA Instructor.