Life, Dogs, Work, Adventure: Love the ProcessJanuary 30, 2023
By Sarah Hey
“I’m not sure what that is,” I called back to my flanker as we stumbled through the woods around midnight. “Maybe a log? A pile of trash?”
In the meantime, my SAR dog was bouncing back and forth between the “log” and me, doing multiple alert-refinds as the distance narrowed.
“No, it’s not a log,” my flanker said. And very soon she was kneeling next to the woman to assess her condition.
“What do you need from me?” I said.
“Reward your dog,” she said.
“Reward your dog,” she said again.
I’ve been engaged in K9 SAR — searches for missing persons using highly trained search dogs — for 15 years. Police, fire, sheriff, emergency management, and other niche law enforcement entities call out our team, the South Carolina Search and Rescue Dog Association, to join in searches for missing persons. It is a “total team effort” and SCSARDA considers itself as similar to special teams in a football game, one of many highly customized, niche tools for complex searches.
Serving on team SCSARDA has been my primary service activity for much of my adulthood; the team is made up of volunteers and its services are provided entirely free of charge. It has offered me times of magic and adventure, and times of significant discomfort and grief. It is one of the hardest things I have ever done. And it is one of the most gratifying and exhilarating. Most of our trainings and searches are conducted in wilderness or very rural areas, and there is just something about the combination of the outdoors, dogs and their superpowers, a team of very different people, the connections you make with others in emergency services, and the recognition that you are providing a sometimes life-saving service.
Some of the lowest points of my adulthood, though, have been in K9 SAR. As with most who enter K9 SAR, I started out knowing little about the work. I knew that I loved the outdoors and dogs, and I wanted to be of service; my father, too, served for decades in the Civil Air Patrol and always said that I should serve on a “ground team” for SAR. The learning curve for anybody entering the field is steep.
After about eight months on the team, I was allowed to begin bringing my dog to training, after he was first assessed by the team. Though an unusual breed for SAR work, a Husky mix, Brand was accepted for training with me, and I began that process.
. . . And proceeded to fail. And fail publicly too, in front of the rest of the team.
After serious troubleshooting, the senior handlers on the team were clear with me. It wasn’t that Brand could not do the work. I was the issue.
One of my low points was failing my trailing certification test. It’s not unusual to fail a test, or two, or even three. But I confessed to them that I had no idea of what I was doing, where I was going wrong or how to get better. Of the four people who had closely observed me, two kindly said that they thought I could move forward and keep working and perhaps succeed eventually. Two others said — after careful thought — “no, we don’t think you can do it, honestly.”
I was allowed to keep laboring on.
I struggled with “reading my dog.” Reading one’s dog is a bit like reading a book with a new language in it. Each dog is different. Although there are signs and signals of all dogs when they are in scent and working, each dog has its own signature, its own gestures and attitudes and gaits, to indicate when it is pursuing human scent, or when it is . . . well, just being a dog.
A part of the problem was that I am myself an avid reader of books. I learn by understanding first, and reading about the task; I prefer to comprehend first, before experiencing. But much of the K9 SAR community, understandably, learns more by doing first. There are not an abundance of texts and tutorials in K9 SAR.
Further, many of the people who worked in this field had grown up working dogs, and had a “dog handling” lifestyle. I was a fish out of water and trying to navigate a confusing world.
“Look,” one handler said to me, after carefully setting up a subject and a short problem with my dog. “Watch this carefully — did you see that? Did you see his head pop right there as he moved through the field and along the woodline?”
“No,” I confessed. “I didn’t see a thing.”
“You didn’t see that?” she asked incredulously.
I was blind, it seemed.
About 1.5 years after starting training in trailing with Brand, I began a new process in area search training. In area search the dog is off-leash and searches for a person using scent in the air, rather than on trail.
I admit, it went a little better. Area search suited the free-spirited, inquisitive, independent dog that I had. He soared.
I was still plodding, and stumbling, and failing. But Brand fared much better.
I redoubled my efforts. I tapped out my friends. I frequently stared at the week’s schedule in front of me of work, fitness, and other duties, and divided spare time into three training segments, then lined up friends to act as search subjects. Several times I would spend hours out in the woods, then finally have to admit failure and ask the subject to help me find him or her. Sometimes the poor subject — having patiently waited in the woods — didn’t even know how to tell us to get to the location.
I began praying. It felt strange — how do you pray about something like K9 SAR training? But every night I would get down on my knees by my bed and ask God to help me.
The more I worked, the more I felt somewhat ill-fated. A sense of doom and failure and lost confidence haunted me, week by week, training by training. Some of my individual trainings were disastrous — hot, sweaty, frustrated, exhausted, and filthy, I would return home with my happy-go-lucky Husky dog, and wonder if I had gained anything from such an outing.
One night after another string of failures, I knelt again by my bed.
I could not do it. There was something “missing” in me. I had worked and given everything to this quest — and my best effort was not good enough. I was spent.
I confess that tears were shed there at my bedside.
I had never sought something so passionately and worked so hard, to come up against a stone wall and to fail. I’m a goal setter. To pursue a goal, something I loved so much, and to be unable to reach it was devastating. The sense of personal failure was overwhelming. I don’t know, looking back, if I have ever wanted something so much, so intensely.
As I knelt there for a long time, a gradual peace arrived. An acceptance. And a new willingness to submit to what was to be.
I suspected I knew what was to be. I would fail at this quest.
But I also, in that silence and peace, committed myself to two things, in the midst of believing I was destined to fail.
First, I would keep trying and I would surrender to the process of training. And second, years from now, should I have failed, I would be a better person, even a better handler. Who I became would be better, regardless of whether I had succeeded in the doing.
How did I know this? Because I recognized that the effort of pushing, working, committing, learning, and struggling would yield fruit. That’s often how the universe works. If we’re able to focus on the process of learning and growing, rather than the end goal, without becoming bitter over failure, the struggle itself shapes us in powerful and often healthy ways.
Unlike some, I don’t believe that if we work hard enough we will necessarily reach our end goals. Sometimes businesses fail, health fails, marriages fail, campaigns fail, teams fail, countries fail. Life is hard, and the world is fraught with dangers and pitfalls and uncertainty. Sometimes we ourselves aren’t all that great either! Nothing seems certain here on earth other than “death and taxes.”
The universe isn’t designed to give us everything that flits across our brains, to give us every desire we have. In theory, we ought to learn that when we are babies. But on the positive side, the universe is a powerhouse of character-building if we wish for that.
It was hard for me to stop focusing on certifying and working my dog in area search. I have pursued goals all of my life. In fact, much of my identity and esteem came from knocking off goals — setting an end target, achieving that target, and then moving on to the next target.
I had to learn to commit to a much higher and grander purpose, becoming better as a human being, every single time I trained.
And gradually I did get better in the task of handling a SAR dog.
One day, I said to the team president in response to her question of whether I wanted to try the 20–acre “pre-cert” observation: “Yeh sure — I’ll give it a try.” And to my surprise, I created a search strategy, started my dog, worked through the area, read him, watched him begin running, lift his head, turn in to an area of interest. He had found the subject.
I remembered as a child how desperately I had wanted to read a book: the love of learning language, to read the signs on the page, to see what others were thinking. I gained the same love of reading my own dog’s behaviors — his “language” — out in the forests and ridges and draws of the region. I read him better and better, and with that came a sense of mastery and wonder. I was predicting and accurately assessing his behavior. I was seeing him in a new way. I felt, more and more, at one with him as dog and handler.
One evening — about three years after I’d attended the first SCSARDA training — Brand and I passed our 40-acre night test. Then we passed our 80-acre day test.
The team fielded me on my first callout with Brand. I was terrified, and was so grateful when they stuck me in the hinterlands far away from the more likely probability of detection, with a very experienced flanker.
One night, I realized that I was reading my dog by simply the angle of his neck and his lighted collar and his gait. I could see nothing else because it was too dark. But I could still read him.
Other days, as I watched him and worked search areas, I experienced the sense of flow — the knowledge that we were together somehow and unified in our understanding of the terrain and currents of air. He and I flowed instinctively through the areas.
I became more natural and instinctive in my search strategy. I have learned to go with the terrain, and with search conditions and air currents. I feel the land and sense how I am being led by the search area itself and the dog.
One early morning on a callout, around midnight after Mother’s Day, Brand alerted to me and and led me through the woods to a missing person.
I was breathtaken with wonder.
Today, I am working and training a second dog. I have always said that I was a poor handler that toiled and toiled to become a mediocre handler. But now — now I would like to move from mediocrity to becoming a “good” handler. Just a good one. I have watched and learned from greatness in other world-class dog handlers, and becoming a good handler seems like a very high goal for me.
I may or may not succeed at that. Life is filled with surprises. I try to make no predictions with certainty. But I think my work — the process I will go through — will make me a better human being, not simply a better handler, just as it did in training my first dog.
Over the years of working with a dog in SAR, I have become more instinctive. More spontaneous, or at least less rigid. I have been more able to laugh even when frustrated and discouraged over not achieving an end-point. I have become somewhat less proud. I’m a hard worker, but really not that natural and gifted at dog handling. I have become more gentle with other people’s failures and pursuits. I have become a little better — sometimes — at managing my internal emotions in times of challenge and discomfort.
I have committed to helping others on my team. I never want a teammate to feel as if he or she is alone in the process. When the time came, I was able to give to others who needed an experienced flanker to help them train. I am a good teacher, too. Because nothing came “naturally” for me in K9 SAR, I learned how to break the process down, step by step. I learned how to explain and describe and analogize K9 SAR work, because I love language and I enjoy setting a mind alight with understanding.
I am more committed than ever to the things that I love. I am willing to submit myself to a process, rather than an end-point.
I take pleasure in the work and in the duty, not simply the attainment.
I am more filled with wonder and awe, rather than simply the drudgery of daily living.
Sometimes the magic fills me up to overflowing.
I am a better person. Not good or great. Just better than I was.
Some who are reading this have perhaps never struggled so much with something they longed for so greatly. And that’s okay. I thank you for reading this story anyway. Maybe someday you’ll meet a great struggle in life and will remember.
But others of you. Others of you are struggling right now. You want so much to grow your business. To be successful. To sell more, to get more clients, to become financially stable and prosperous, to hire more employees, to build something great for the future.
It is a worthy quest, perhaps borne from your past, your childhood, your losses and struggles, your personality and nature.
Or you want to salvage your marriage.
You want to resolve a current health scare — maybe an issue that could be the death of you.
You want to pass a class or achieve a degree.
You want to save your child — oh how you love him.
You want to finally feel good in your body.
You are in the fight of your life, and you have put everything on the line. You have poured everything of yourself into this goal and run up against brick wall after brick wall. You have prayed and cried. Worked hard. There is — or seems to be — nothing left in you but failure and uncertainty and helplessness.
I surely can’t predict the future. And you may or may not reach your goal. And that may at least feel as if it will destroy you.
There are some simple things you can do in the moment that can help on a day to day basis.
Get morning sunshine every day. Assemble your posse. Count up your friends and supporters and lean on them consciously and intentionally. Love what you love. You don’t need to second-guess or doubt what you love. Just remember the love. That was the only explanation for my own effort in the end.
But beyond those simple tasks, I offer two larger principles for your struggle that can serve as a philosophical foundation.
1) Surrender to the process and learn to love that process even if it doesn’t get you to the destination you seek. Submit to it. Take pride in it.
2) And vow that, God being your helper, you will get better come what may. That you will take everything you can from this struggle and that in the end, you will be better at your work, at relationships, at health, at love and service and courage. Even if you “fall on the rocks below” you will fall a more worthy and noble human being, at least.
It may be cold comfort right now to think about failing but becoming better.
But all of life is about failures, really. Trying and failing, and trying again, and moving on from one goal to pursuing another. The more you are able to commit to and love the process, love the work, rather than the end result, the more you relish the process and look forward to each and every day of the process, the better you can become.
When I was a child, I kept a little quote book of things I read. I still have that little book and one of my favorite lines is this old Latin proverb that caught my attention: “Death plucks my ears and says: ‘Live, I am coming.'” This recognition has been one of the keystones of my life. When one acknowledges this reality, many things either acquire far more importance, or subside into far less significance.
After all, if our end result here on earth is ultimately death, getting better as the years fly by is surely one of the most worthwhile things we can pursue. Not the money, not the goals, not the success, not the prestige, not the fame or glory or acknowledgement from your peers — but the personal growth.
Don’t waste your struggle.
If you don’t get success, get something greater out of it. Get better.
Sarah Hey provides consulting services in branding, publicity, content, marketing strategy, and credibility/profile raising to a wide variety of corporations, organizations, and individuals. She spends much of her free time outdoors, roaming the forests, fields, and mountains of this beautiful region, where she occasionally finds peace. Reach out through LI at https://www.linkedin.com/in/sarahhey.