Author: Inge Fuchs
Pictures: Hanno Meier

More than just search work

Mantrailing brings dogs and people together

Christine Theiss describes her three-year-old boxer Hermes as a “huge, 600-horsepower clown”. He has enough energy for five dogs, but he is also massively ambitious and focused.” And these are traits which he puts to perfect use when engaged in so-called “man trailing.

Man trailing is the ability of a dog to pursue a certain scent over a distance of many kilometers. Search and rescue dogs who have undergone special training in this regard are referred to as “man trailers”. A dog handler stands and walks behind every man trailer. Rescue work is team work.
Christine and Hermes are one of the volunteer duos which make up the rescue squad at the Workers’ Samaritan Federation (ASB) in Munich, an aid and welfare organization which operates in various areas. Everything began more than twelve years ago when Christine noticed that her boxer dog was “simply too smart to lie on the sofa”. “I was an elite athlete at the time. In my free time, I wanted to switch off from competition and go training with my dog. That’s how I came to be a volunteer working with rescue dogs.” Alongside her work as a dog handler and trainer, Christine is now also Deputy National Chair of the ASB. 

First the pleasure, then the work

Christine’s many years of experience have taught her that motivation is the basis of search work. “Why should my dog go out searching for me at three o’ clock in the morning if it’s no fun for him?” For this reason, the breed of the dog is one of the key aspects of professional man trailing. Rescue dogs need to have a good temperament and must also be easy to motivate. Christine Theiss says: “A stubborn boxer is particularly suitable in this respect, as long as he is healthy and has been well bred.” Especially the dog‘s nose goes into overdrive during man trailing. The mental exertion involved makes the animal tired, and this enables Christine to calm even Hermes down. “My dog is always on the go, but he falls asleep straightaway after man trailing.” 

I know that he would throw himself to his death for me in an instant.

She explains that enjoyment and motivation are the most important part of the dog’s training program, which lasts for just over two years. Enjoyment comes from positive reinforcement. Every dog has its own personal favorite rewards. Some want food, others may prefer tickling or playtime. Dogs also use body language to emit various other signals, and the handler needs to be able to read these whilst out man trailing. The result is a very close connection, and this is something which Christine and Hermes also share. “I know that he would have no hesitation in jumping to his death for me.” However, the handler also needs to possess a number of important qualities. These include time, team spirit, a critical faculty and self-belief. “If someone running behind lacks confidence or does not maintain a physical tension, then the dog’s body language will become unclear and almost impossible to read,” explains Christine. Handling the leash is particularly crucial. Humans and dogs are able to communicate with each other if the lead is kept taut and the animal’s harness has been individually adjusted. 

One’s own safety

What would Christine never be without on any trail? A water bottle, bandages, GPS and, of course, a sample of the scent the dog is following. Her own safety equipment includes ankle-high boots. “I would advise everyone to ensure that they wear S3 safety boots when they go out. Ultimately, I want to concentrate on my dog and not on the pathway“. Every search situation is different. Sometimes you may find yourself in an urban jungle, on other occasions you might be moving across a terrain of woodland and fields. Despite all the commitment she shows, her own health takes precedence. Christine trusts Hermes implicitly, but she places just as much reliance in her safety equipment. Christine is left to focus fully on her trail work with Hermes. She does not need to work out any routes for herself until the mission is over. As soon as Hermes wakes up, the pair will embark on a lengthy walk.

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