Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Cooper Passes FSA in CT

On October 9, 2010 the team of Debra Krsnich and Cooper vom Foxtal successfully completed the FSA certification at a SUSAR test in Connecticut.

Besides an exercise in acronyms, that single sentence is so powerful. It speaks to the commitment to the State Urban Search and Rescue Alliance and the Wisconsin Task Force to which they belong; to the breeding program that produced this dog; the versatility of a dog that was trained in schutzhund and can transfer those skills to a different venue; the memory of the great dog that preceeded him; and finally, to one weekend in time when a dog and handler emerged as a Team.

Cooper vom Foxtal was born on July 30 2007, a wiggly little brindle boy sired by Nico van Neerland (2002 KNPV PH II National Champion) and out of Roya vom Foxtal (SchH A). As a stout youngster he enjoyed beating up on his littermates, his future lay in schutzhund. Although both he and my other puppies sometimes traveled to training at the rubble site in Milwaukee where WI-TF1 trains, it was nothing more than a fun road trip at the time. I was busy training and certifying my Belgian Malinois female, Jinx du Loups du Soleil.

It was Jinx who led me to Urban Search and Rescue (USAR). When I acquired Jinx, my goal was Mondioring. When a friend dragged me along to a “fun day at Rubble Town” sponsored by People and Paws SAR in Milwaukee, I found the disaster search work very interesting but wasn’t sure it would not conflict with ringsport. We flew to College Station, TX for a Canine Search Specialist (CSS) course taught by FEMA instructors, where I discovered that while pursuing ring titles would create conflicts, schutzhund seemed the perfect compliment. By the time Jinx was side-lined in December 2008 with a medial glenohumeral ligament tear and ultimately diagnosed with a peripheal nerve sheath tumor in 2009, she had passed her FSA (Foundation Skills Assessment) and Type 1/CE, as well as having one leg of her MR1 and being the North Central Region Schutzhund 2 Champion.

The Acronyms

FSA is FEMA's "Foundation Skills Assessment". The details of this evaluation (and the CE) can be found on The FSA was formerly FEMA's Type II (Basic) deployment evaluation. However, several years ago, FEMA designated that an "in-house" evaluation and it is essentially a pre-test for the CE. SUSAR operates under certification procedures similar to what FEMA had before - the Type II and Type I system, being a younger system and still in the process of bringing all the dogs up to that level. So, passing the FSA qualifies us as a Type II (Basic) certified disaster search resource for SUSAR and we can be deployed through our state team.

SUSAR stands for State Urban Search and Rescue. SUSAR is the association of state disaster search teams across the US. Most of these teams are funded by and are part of their state's emergency management agency. These teams usually operate the same as FEMA teams with all the same components and similar requirements. In an emergency in your state, it is likely that the state-based teams will have the initial response, as FEMA stages.

CE means Certification Evaluation. This is FEMA's deployment evaluation for disaster search canines and handlers. When you pass this test, it means you are a deployable resource through FEMA, if you are a member of a FEMA Task Force.It also means that you will be a Type I (Advanced) resource through SUSAR. Because I am not within the mandatory response area for an existing FEMA team, I belong to WI-TF1, a SUSAR Task Force.

Waiting in the Wings

As I devoted so much time to Jinx’s surgeries and rehabilitation, Cooper waited in the wings. He was not titled in schutzhund as quickly as he would have been, had I been able to focus on his training but we continued working in our club, Fox Valley Police & Schutzhund Club. With Jinx diagnosed with cancer, and dying in May of 2010, I needed another disaster dog. Cooper was confident on the rubble and had many of the tools I would need, thanks to his schutzhund training, so he received the nod to step up. Still, he existed in the shadow of Jinx. At times he surprised me with how quickly he learned a new skill but it was always in the context of a comparison with Jinx. If Cooper felt it, he did not let it affect him and he worked, as always, with a joyful attitude, daring me to recognize the talent in front of me.

The Test

On October 9, 2010 WI-TF1 welcomed two newly certified dog teams: myself with Cooper and Scott Pierson with Xamb (prounounced "Zam") Xamb is a male German Shepherd Dog, and Cooper is a male Dutch Shepherd Dog, bred and trained by the handler. Both teams traveled to CT where they completed their FSA/ Type II Disaster Canine Evaluation through the SUSAR system, under evaluators Konnie Hein and Elizabeth Kreitler. Cooper and Xamb are the second generation of certified dogs for both handlers, having trained previous K9s to Type1/CE. They join Wisconsin's only other SUSAR certified disaster dog, also on WI-TF1, K9 Gretzky and handler Geoff Gardiner.

The FSA exam requires the dogs to successfully complete elements in obedience, direction and control and agility. Testing began with 8 dogs and the teams demonstrated off-lead heeling with speed changes, turns and moving through a group of milling people. Obedience is the foundation for any disaster dog, as they must be able to move through scenes under control of the handler, without demonstrating aggression or fear or being distracted. The dogs are also placed on a tie-out and left without command, to be retrieved by a stranger, to evaluate any potential aggression to humans. Dog aggression is tested by having the teams figure eight around two dog and handler teams, acting as "posts". Both the posted dogs and the heeling dog are evaluated. The dogs must also demonstrate an emergency stop and must immediately show a change of speed and then stop upon command, after being recalled. Some of the dogs clearly struggled with basic obedience but were able to complete the tasks...until the group long down.

Eight dogs lay down next to one another. Eight handlers left their dogs and walked around the corner to wait for the interminable five minute time period to end. First one dog sprinted around the corner, then another. Then the evaluator began retrieving dogs and returning them on leash to their handlers. Finally, three handlers returned to their dogs and three dogs were waiting in perfect position. When I saw Cooper laying there, in perfect, attentive sphinx position, I could have kissed him on the lips. Decorum prevailed and a heartfelt “good boy!” had to suffice. The rules specify which elements can be re-tested and the five dogs were able to make another attempt at the long down, but unfortunately, the results were no different the second time. And then there were three.

Three dogs continued to the bark barrel. The rationale of the bark barrel is to evaluate the bark alert behavior. The bark alert is the only alert method that can be recognized from out of sight, and so an enthusiastic and obvious bark alert is imperative. A person is concealed in a barrel, pipe or similar container where the dog can only smell the person, not see them. The dog is sent from a distance of 25 yards to perform the bark alert. The female pitbull who was up first, ran to the barrel, sniffed and then wandered off to urinate. Fortunately, both Cooper and Xamb were focused on their task to the exclusion of other distractions and barked with focus and persistence. Then there were two.

Only Cooper and Xamb continued from that point as part of the testing, but the evaluators generously allowed the other teams to complete the elements as practice and reward their dogs. During the test, you can only reward your dog with praise except at the bark barrel, where a secondary tug reward is allowed. Scott and I were able to successfully direct our dogs through the testing pattern in Direction and Control and through the elements of the agility course, including climbing a ladder, traversing an elevated plank, moving through tunnel and over unstable footing, among others. Cooper was not sure that the tunnel-- much smaller in diameter than what he was familiar with--- was meant to go through and thought at first he should walk on top of it! In all of the elements the dog must preceed the handler and must also demonstrate a stop and a turn on one.

Of the eight dogs who began the morning together, only Cooper and Xamb moved on to the rubble search. They were joined by a third dog team that needed only to re-test on the rubble. Interestingly enough, all three were Midwest teams.

With the obedience and agility elements completed the teams must then search a 3500-5000 square foot rubble pile simulating a collapsed 3 story structure and locate two victims within 20 minutes. The standard echoes the FEMA requirement of a bark alert indicating the presence of live human scent. The goal of the FSA rubble search is to see that the dog can work independently of the handler. Therefore, the handler remains off the pile at the starting location until the dog has barked a minimum of three times in succession. Xamb and Cooper both moved across the unstable footing, with the pile being completed the night before and still in the process of settling, with confidence and located both victims within the allotted time.

The success of the two WI-TF1 teams at this test, serves to demonstrate what can be accomplished with limited resources. The task force does not boast a large budget or fancy equipment and training center. Most days our victims are drawn from the membership of the wilderness team of People and Paws, and all of my foundation work is done within my schutzhund club. We have only one rubble pile. There were others at the test who face the same struggles and travel great distances to test and train their dogs. We train our own dogs and truly realize the depths of those partnerships.

The Schutzund Connection

In many courses for disaster dog teams, the emphasis now is on “training in drive”. Handlers are taught to play “The Game” (ala Balabanov). Because a disaster dog must work off leash and yet respond quickly and confidently, it is critical that they are taught behaviors motivationally. Pain compliance will not create the dog you need for this work. As you can see by the testing elements, much of it involves exercises we teach in schutzhund. The aspect that is missing is environmental and the challenge to step outside the box in your training thought. My club members have acted as “spotters” as Cooper learned to climb the 6 foot ladder. They provide distractions for obedience. What dog can’t benefit from learning to traverse unstable footing or crossing a teeter-totter? And my directional tables see multi-use as members also use them to teach positions and heel around them as obstacles! The bark barrel is simply a “revier” exercise to a concealed subject, where we teach the dog to respond to scent versus sight. We use tug reward with concealed subjects, so even the method of reinforcement remains consistent.

I believe that handlers who have a foundation in positive schutzhund training, using verbal markers, have a distinct advantage over USAR handlers who lack this. Your dog already knows how to learn, how to engage you. He knows the take direction from you in a search pattern. The behaviors trained in schutzhund compliment USAR throughout the levels.

Out from the Shadow

Cooper and I tested on Sunday for our Type 1/CE. Evaluators do not encourage this because it can be a big leap from the skill set of the FSA search to that test, and statistically there is limited success. However, we had driven all the way to Connecticut and had nothing to lose by trying. In making my decision, I advised evaluators that I would end the test if Cooper appeared to struggle, so that he would get a reward and end the experience positively.

In the Type 1/CE the dog must search two piles of approximately 3500-5000 square feet, simulating the collapse of a three story building. There are 0-6 victims and you do not know how many are in either pile. There are also distractions. In this case the distractions included venison and recently worn clothing. The dog must alert to live human scent only, not human remains or clothing. Safety officers are also on the pile as the dog works, so the dog must only search for inaccessible live human scent. The first pile we searched was the limited access, meaning we had to remain off the pile until the dog alerted us to a located victim, and then we could proceed but had to remain within five feet of that victim to redirect the dog. This search evaluates the ability of the dog to work independently and simulates an unstable area where the handler cannot safely wander around. Cooper entered the pile dynamically and located two victims. After the second, I directed him to move into areas we had not covered and it was clear from his behavior that he had no new scent. As if a shadow was pulled back—the shadow of Jinx—I realized with a start: I trusted my dog!

As Cooper stood before me, his posture telling me there were no more victims to find there, I believed him. It was clear, and we were a Team. I told the evaluators were we had completed that search. Later, I learned we were correct but in my heart, I knew it at the time.

We drove to the second site and began the search of the full-access pile. Due to an accident with one of the first dogs to test, things had run behind and we were rushed to get to the next site without adequate rest. Too late they realized it, but Cooper was already at the pile and not about to relax. I’m sure that will come with more experience, but for the moment, tongue hanging out, he wanted to work. That debris included several busses and interesting spans and crevices. For this search, the handler must present a search strategy, map the search area and debrief. I began with an on-leash air scenting exercise around the perimeter, on the downwind side, letting Cooper convince me he had scent. As we walked, he suddenly stiffened, ears forward and body tense, and pulled toward the pile. I released him and he fairly flew onto the rubble. My bad! I had released the wrong clasp and he still had his collar on, which is not allowed! I had to recall him quickly in order to continue! Fortunately, that obedience foundation paid off. He came back, the collar was removed and he was once again dispatched to the search, locating his first victim. I threw down the tug reward, played at the source of odor, and then sent him off to find another. He located a second victim successfully. Whew! I could tell by the way he was working the scent that there were two more there, and later I advised this in my debrief, identifying the areas, but Cooper did not make a bark alert and therefore did not pass. The scent at those two was diffuse and we were the last dog team of the day to test, so it was not concentrated as the two he located. He had poked his nose right into the location, stood there and looked at me but failed to bark! The poor boy was simply out of gas. Still, I knew what he was telling me. The evaluators were impressed with his agility (squeezing under a bus, one asked “what is he? An anaconda?”) and how we worked the areas together. Cooper never quit.

I went to Connecticut to pass an FSA. I did not imagine that I would come back with the partner I have, who is a phenomenal dog in his own right. We left as a dog and his handler, and returned as a Team.