One of the important jobs that dogs do for us is search and rescue in places that are very dangerous or impossible for people to work in. Dogs can be specifically trained as cadaver search dogs, to find bodies under the rubble at earthquake sites for example. A couple of months ago, last March, there was a disastrous mudslide in Washington State, in the north west of the US.
This struck a chord for me, because I was there, visiting my nephew in Seattle last year. The affected area is not far from the pumpkin farm we went to visit to get out Halloween pumpkins. This connection makes far-off disasters seem all the more real.
You might wonder about some of the dilemmas facing cadaver search dog trainers. Imagine your dog has just discovered the body of a child. “Oh, good boy, good boy, good boy” you chortle as you bring out your dog’s favourite tug toy “what a good boy, you found the body of a dead child, good boy!” as the devastated parents collapse in shock and grief nearby. I don’t think so. So how do you reward your dog?
The answer is to brush up on your learning theory and “train smarter”. You just quietly say “Rhubarb” to your dog and take him away. Only you and I know that “rhubarb” has been trained in as a powerful conditioned reinforcer – a unique word that signifies reward to your dog.