Alois, tell us a bit about yourself and your dogs.
I am 61 years old and have been working as a search and rescue dog handler for 40 years, but I am also experienced in handling and training protection and hunting dogs. In my 35 years of operational work I took part in hundreds of rescue operations in Salzburg and, also completed three international earthquake missions. Today my focus lies in the training and testing of search and rescue dogs. In these two areas I can apply my expertise very well, because I know exactly which aspects make a good search and rescue dog.
Currently, I have three dogs myself, two Labradors and one Malinois. One of the two Labradors is used for Trailing but also for hunting. The Malinois is my retired service and search and rescue dog. He is now twelve years old and trained in Trailing too.
Originally, I had a Swiss Hound for Trailing, but unfortunately, he passed away. Therefore, I first started to train the Malinois in Mantrailing and then my Labrador. In the foreseeable future I plan to extend the pack with a Hanoverian Scent Hound, which will be trained to be a pure trailing dog again.
Please explain us what Mantrailing exactly is and how it works?
Personally, I do not like the term Mantrailing at all, because it has become very widely used. I prefer to use the term 'search for a specific person', which is what it is all about.
In general, Mantrailing should be viewed from two angles, one being the perspective of sport and the other that of deployment. For sports, a dog with a normal disposition can be well trained. Trailing is a meaningful leisure activity for humans and dogs. For me as the owner of a dog school it is important to create the understanding that every trained and educated dog is an asset to society. Dogs are often a topic of conflict, but with appropriate education and training this image can be positively influenced.
To become a trailing dog in a search and rescue dog unit the dog not only has to be led in a sportive way but it has to dispose of particular characteristics such as the ability to work in a team and a strong will to search and find. Dogs that possess these attributes are specially trained and receive intensive training.
The trailing dog is often seen as the ultimate solution. But it is not. Working in collaboration with an Area search dog increases the chances of finding the missing person. The Mantrailer can significantly contribute to narrowing down the search area by indicating where the person was and in which direction he or she went. The credo is, so to speak: Together and not alone.
What is the difference between Mantrailing and Tracking or Area search?
This is the cardinal question par excellence. It is not legitimate to compare the trailing dog with a tracking dog. The tracking dog should follow the trail accurately from the beginning of the trail with a deep nose. In doing so, the dog orients itself along the soil damage on natural ground such as meadow or earth.
The trailing dog is assigned an area where the person was last seen. There it smells a scent article of the respective person and then indicates the direction in which the trail is going. The mantrailing dog picks up the smell where it perceives it. This can be from the ground, but also from the air. Factors such as weather, wind, thermals, or road traffic can cause scent particles to be swirled. However, this is no problem for the experienced Mantrailer because it can absorb the smell even over long distances. Ideally, the dog should also stay true to track in Mantrailing, as valuable clues about the person being searched for can often be found along the way, such as a toy or a suspected murder weapon.
How did you get into Mantrailing? And how long have you been active in this field?
I have been active in Mantrailing for more than ten years now. In Europe, Mantrailing has long been smiled at, whereas in America it has been established for many years. At the same time, aspects of Mantrailing were trained very early on in the training of tracking dogs, albeit unknowingly. For example, there was an exercise called ‘scent identification’. The task for the dog was to identify the tracker's scent from a set of five objects. The objects were placed on the ground, the dog went through, smelled all the articles and on the way back it had to bring the article belonging to the tracker. This exercise has meanwhile been abolished for lack of practicality but was later taken up again. So to speak, Tracking led my way to Mantrailing.
Let us recapitulate briefly: What are the prerequisites for humans and dogs to do Mantrailing?
Again, we must differentiate between sports and deployment. Let us start with deployment: It requires a well-trained, active dog with a strong will to search and find, as mentioned earlier. The dog must be easily motivated, either through food or play. The breed is secondary, although some dogs certainly have better preconditions than others. For example, hunting dog breeds are particularly well suited for the job as Mantrailer, as they are obedient, but often not 'blindly obedient'. And this is a very important aspect, because during trailing, the dogs should not be distracted by the slightest influence of their handlers. They must be able to make their own decisions and assert themselves, but at the same time react to clear communication from their handlers.
I like to describe the interaction between humans and dogs during trailing like this: In front is the nose, behind is the brain. If the dog loses the trail, the human brain must become active, analyse the situation, and determine the further strategy. The dog handler must ask himself what he can do to get out of the situation. It is important to assess whether the dog has checked everything sufficiently and whether it may have been hindered in its search by oneself. At the same time, it is important to consider external influences such as wind or thermals when assessing the situation. In addition to all these aspects, the dog handler should be in good physical condition and it is essential that he can read the body language of his four-legged partner well. The dog handler should also have a high frustration tolerance, because due to the many factors that influence a trail, not every mission is successful.
In sports you also need a great dog to be successful. However, if a dog loses a trail in sport, it may be annoying, but it is not life threatening. With appropriate aptitude, sport often paves the way to a career as a professional search and rescue dog.
When dogs are prepared for deployment, what situations are trained?
Working with negative tracks, for example, is important. The dogs receive a scent article, from a person who was never present. Ideally, the dog will not start the search, but will let its handler know that there is no trail. Situations in which people get into a car or on a train and the trail suddenly ends, are also regularly trained.
What do you like most about Mantrailing?
To watch dogs getting excited about searching already in their early puppyhood, beginning at the age of about nine weeks, and how they try to find every trail, no matter how small – that is something special. Personally, I find the building and training of the dogs fascinating.
It is also nice to observe when the interaction between dogs and humans is working well and teams solve complex tasks, such as crossings, and ultimately find the right way forward.
What is also special is the fact that a dog can trail until old age, although not in deployment, but as a sporting activity Mantrailing is always a good activity for aging dogs.
The International Search and Rescue Dog Organisation offers a Mantrailing course for its national and international Trainers. What is special about this training and what are the contents of the course? Where does the focus of this training lie?
The particularity of the training is that existing IRO Trainers will be trained in the field of Mantrailing to allow them to carry out trainings in this discipline themselves in the future. During the training it is very important to us that the trainers work with their own dogs, so that they can apply the acquired knowledge directly in practice and deepen it at home. The IRO Trainers will get to know their dogs anew, even if they are already actively leading them in another search discipline. For the participants it is also a special motivation to experience success with their own dogs and to discover the fascination of Mantrailing.
To ensure the success of the training, the programme concludes with a IPO-R A nose work practical test. The A-exam is a tangible goal for the participants, which they work towards as part of the training.
Moreover, it is important to mention that Mantrailing can be practised without any problems as a complement to other search disciplines. A Rubble dog will not forget his skills just because he gets trained in Mantrailing. Dogs recognise through certain rituals which task awaits them. For example, in Mantrailing they wear a harness, which is not the case in Rubble search. Another characteristic of the training is that IRO Judges will also take part in some of the sessions. In the future, the IRO Judges will judge more and more Mantrailing testing events and therefore it is important that they get a thorough insight.
From an international point of view, there is a need for well-trained trailing dogs. In many countries Mantrailers are for instance an integral part of police operations. With the training of national and international IRO Trainers, we are taking an important step towards ensuring that the high quality standards of the IRO in the training of search and rescue dogs will also be maintained globally in the field of Mantrailing in the future.
How long does it generally take to become a certified Mantrailer?
After about three years, the dog is usually ready to work reliably. But basically, the training never ends because every trail is different and Mantrailing in general is an incredibly complex discipline.
One last question: How often per week do you train with your dogs?
At least once a week. With my two Labradors I train almost every day in some form. The pensioner, my Malinois, is looking after the house in the meantime.
Alois, thank you for taking the time to do this interview with us.