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Mantrailing With Dogs: Rescue Sniffer Dog Training

It is often a dog's acute sense of smell that can track missing people. But how can a dog learn mantrailing, i.e. specifically tracking down people and not simply chasing after the next treat? In this special interview, Haimo Ziegeleder introduces himself and his work as a freelance mantrailing dog trainer.

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Mantrailer trainer - the career

Haimo Ziegeleder from Salzburg is a full-time dog trainer specialising in the search for missing people - mantrailing. He has been working as a volunteer in a non-profit rescue organisation for 40 years and has also been a dog handler for over 10 years, and a mantrailing trainer for around 7 years. He himself has a certified Labrador with which he regularly carries out missions. As a freelance mantrailing dog trainer, he is passionate about training dog teams for missions, sport and hobbies. 

It is important to him that dogs and humans have a lot of fun and enjoy the search work. Because mantrailing with a dog can be done almost anywhere - the dog will always have its nose and you are not restriced to a specific location. This makes mantrailing a very special leisure activity and a fantastic hobby that the dog can pursue with great enthusiasm as well as providing a fabulous workout. Haimo was so fascinated by the interest and joy of this work that two years ago he expanded his charitable work to become an independent trainer with "dog@work-mantrailing".

What are the tasks for a rescue dog ?

There are different branches and training programmes in rescue dog work. There are area search dogs for searching in large, open areas such as meadows, floodplains, woodland and roadside searches. Then there are avalanche search dogs, searching for people buried in snow. And then there are rubble search dogs - these search for survivors in collapsed buildings. These dogs are soley sniffer dogs that search for any human scent. They get as close as possible to the person, then compare the person with memorised images (e.g. person sitting or lying down, injury, confusion, etc.). If the memorised parameters match, the person is indicated, usually by barking.

And then there are the mantrailers. Mantrailers are mainly used in the search for missing persons. In the USA, this search type is very popular in the pursuit of criminals. These dogs are called in when people have gone missing from care centres, children have disappeared from playgrounds, hikers have gone missing or, in particularly tragic cases, when people have gone missing after announcing their suicide. In contrast to the other search dogs previously mentioned, a mantrailer dog is trained to search for a very specific scent (individual human scent) of the missing person, which the dog is presented with as a reference scent at the start of the search. Once the dog has picked up the scent, it can at best follow it to its destination - but this always depends on the age of the scent and the prevailing weather conditions.

Since my speciality is mantrailing, I will limit myself to this topic for the rest of the article.

Rescue dog training

Can any dog become a rescue dog?

A rescue dog should have a strong character and an open, inquisitive nature, friendliness and enjoyment of joint activities with its owner. In addition, a rescue dog should be familiar with a wide variety of environmental influences and surfaces as well as a good food and play instinct, as this is important in order to be able to reward the dog during rescue training. Rescue dog work also requires stamina and endurance - i.e. a good level of fitness - not every dog can become a rescue dog. Dogs that are too small or too lumbering and dogs with shorter noses are less suitable. It must also be clearly stated that not every dog will make it into the top league of rescue dog work due to its personal character. As with humans, the characters of dogs vary from dog to dog and a pronounced "will to find" is part of it. But almost every dog can learn rescue dog work in the sporting field.

Is there a minimum or maximum age for starting training or rescue dog training?

Basically, you can start in very small, playful and fun steps as a puppy from around 10 weeks of age. As far as the maximum age is concerned, you should bear in mind that training to become a certified mantrailer takes about two to three years and that the dog should then be able to work for some time after. Personally, I would set the absolute maximum age for starting training as a working dog at 4 years old.

Are there any dog breeds that are particularly suitable for mantrailing or rescue dog training? 

Yes, there are of course dog breeds that have better characteristics for mantrailing. These include, sniffer dogs and hunting dogs. However, this does not mean that other dog breeds are unsuitable!

What criteria do the owners have to fulfil in order to do mantrailing?

In reality, what applies to our sniffer dogs also applies to us.  If you enjoy being outside in all weathers, have the necessary mental and physical fitness, patience and stamina for the often strenuous search and like people, then rescue dog work is the right job for you. You should also be a team player - because a search is always teamwork and lastly, you should enjoy working and learning together with your dog and have enough patience and time to train your four-legged friend.

How long does the training to become a rescue dog take?

This varies from division to division. Mantrailer training takes around two to three years. As the dog and handler are trained as a team, it always depends on the respective characters of the human and dog as to how quickly they can learn and realise something together.

How often do you practise during mantrailing training?

In my experience, you will achieve good learning success if you train young dogs once a week. When the dog is about a year old, you can extend this to two training sessions per week. When the mantrailing team has reached operational readiness, a further weekly training session would be desirable.

What does a typical mantrailing training session look like and what does a mantrailer's everyday life look like?

Every training session is different. Each dog learns in different ways and different speeds. As a trainer I have to take a very individual approach from team to team. The training sessions are organised according to the level of training. With young dogs, a simple scent trail is followed around 2 or 3 corners in a fun and playful way, whereas with more advanced dogs, the training sessions are more difficult and involve more complex tasks. As the mantrailer dog always works as a team with their handler, the handler is also faced with tricky tasks, so that they learn to support their dog in the best possible way should there be difficulties in the search.

No matter how well or difficult a training session is completed or organised, the most important thing is that a team always goes home with a positive result. That is why it is never possible to say exactly how long a training session will last.

What does the training programme focus on?

Topics in the training programme include:

  • Individual odour - odour development and odour spread
  • Cartography and navigation with and without GPS
  • First aid for humans and dogs
  • Means of communication
  • How does the dog's nose work
  • How the dog learns
  • Animal welfare and protection

What things does the dog need to learn to become a mantrailing rescue dog?

The dog learns to pick up a scent (the trail) based on the reference odour presented and to follow it to the end. As with us humans, experience is added to what has been learnt and the overall package makes a good rescue dog.

What else should you know about mantrailing with a dog?

As with many other things, mantrailing requires good training and time in which both dog and human can mature with experience. The older a mantrailing dog gets - the longer it has been able to gain experience, the more confident and independent it can make decisions when working.

How does a real mantrailing mission work?

Every deployment is different, so it is difficult to describe one. There are also different circumstances and specifications from the (federal) states. At the beginning there always an alert - i.e. our mission. Depending on the client (e.g. blue light organisations), the operations are then organised according to their wishes and requirements. Teamwork and flexibility on the part of all those involved are important.

Who decides when a rescue dog is deployed - who should you contact if you need a rescue dog?

In principle, searching for missing persons is always police work. They should therefore always be the first point of contact when someone goes missing. The police then decide whether to use their own dogs or dogs from partner organisations. Search dogs can also be requested via the rescue control centres (e.g. Red Cross). They will then forward the information to the relevant authorities.

How does an interested party get a rescue dog? Is the trained rescue dog placed or do you train it yourself?

The future rescue dog is selected and paid for by the dog handler - so a rescue dog is also the property of the dog handler. In practice, you have a family dog that does a job. In principle, the handler trains their dog themselves. In most dog rescue teams, training is free of charge if you make yourself available for missions after training. Here, too, it must be said that a dedicated dog handler is likely to complete additional education and training - even outside the respective organisation.

What influence does food have on the training of a rescue dog?

From practical experience, I can say that only a healthy dog can work optimally and it is therefore clear to me that only high-quality food can be considered for a working dog. As a working dog handler, you demand performance from your dog, so you have to support your four-legged partner with optimum nutrition. This is where we work very successfully with Naturavetal.

What qualifications must a trainer fulfil in order to be allowed to train a rescue dog?

As a trainer, you have to guide the teams through the training sessions with a great deal of empathy. Mistakes that happen during training take a lot of time to correct later on.

A mantrailing trainer for rescue dogs should, of course, have trained their own dog to be ready for action and have gained experience in real missions.

Are there any special certifications here?

Mantrailing is still a very young branch of rescue dog work. In the early years, a lot of knowledge about it came from law enforcement mantrailers in the USA. This knowledge was adapted to our needs in the search for people.

Mantrailing has become a real trend - many clubs as well as private trainers offer training courses to become a mantrailing trainer. Anyone interested should make up their own mind about the quality of these training courses.

Mantrailing and Naturavetal - our résumé 

We have always been enthusiastic about how dogs can enrich people's everyday lives. The bond between a dog and its owner is strengthened in the long term if the owner can teach their dog tasks that the dog can then successfully carry out. Dog and owner can particularly benefit if these tasks take place in an area that corresponds to the dog's nature. This is why mantrailing is such an exciting area, as communication and bonding between dog and owner play a major role, as well as scent work, exercise and endurance on the part of the dog.

Dogs must regularly perform at their best, so it is very important to feed them a natural diet with Canis Plus®, which provides them with everything they need as extreme athletes. The food can have a major influence on the dog's behaviour and have a lasting effect on its performance and endurance. You can find out more in our Guide "The connection between nutrition and behaviour in dogs".

A kind greeting at the end

We would like to take this opportunity to thank Haimo Ziegeleder for the exciting report and the insight behind the scenes and hope that we have stimulated some interest for a new, exciting hobby! You can follow the work of Mr Ziegeleder and Gizmo on this page: www.dogatwork.at

Should you have any questions, please feel free to contact us by phone. We are here to help you with comprehensive advice. You can reach us Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. by phone at 020 8531 7804 or mail info@naturavetal.co.uk.

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