Lessons I Learned Training Dogs to Track Zombies By Doug Goodman
Lessons I Learned Training Dogs to Track Zombies By Doug Goodman
“Training a dog to track a zombie is like training a cadaver dog or a bomb dog. It takes patience, trust, and the right dog-and-handler team. And to not be afraid of zombies.”
I do not remember the exact moment when I first decided to write about dogs that track zombies. Surely by 2007 I knew, but maybe as early as 2005, which is to say, pretty close to when I first started working with cadaver dogs, what is now referred to as Human Remains Dogs (HRDs). Up until then, my association with dogs was as a child of German Shepherd Dog breeders. I owned a mixed breed named Mojo (who would go on to influence the dogs in my book), but otherwise, I didn’t handle or train dogs.
Since then I have helped owners train dozens of dogs to detect human remains and trained three of my own dogs to do the job. I have been out on multiple searches. I have also written a book about a search and rescue handler who works in human remains detection and who is tasked with training her dog to track zombies. The first book, Cadaver Dog, came out in 2015, and the second book, Dead Dog, comes out April 27, 2018.
The Walking Scent
One of the things a handler learns in scent work is that scent moves. This is actually helpful because it influences the dog’s behavior, which is the major way that a handler knows their dog is working. I think the idea of moving scent was my initial inspiration for the book. I thought, if the scent of my scent items can move, what if my scent item moved? The SAR handlers who work with tracking live bodies have to follow moving targets all the time. Why not human remains? I was thinking innocently enough about improving my dog’s training. Later, I realized that pop culture already had prepared this wonderful scenario where the dead walk. So how would the training change?
Think about this. In training HRDs, the handler is searching for any remains, not a particular set of remains. This is different from trailing work, where the dog is expected to sample a specific persons’ smell and then find that one person, not anyone else. So the first question I had to deal with was the question all handlers are faced with, regardless of the dog’s job: what is the dog expected to do? Once you know the goal, you can frame the dog’s training toward that goal. The goal was to find any zombie, not a specific zombie. Where I work SAR, we call this kind of dog an area search dog. Of course, area search dogs are looking for any LIVE human, not the walking dead. This knowledge informed the characters in the book and the story’s plot because the way an area search dog is trained and the way a human remains dog is trained are different.
For my team, we start trailing dogs and area search dogs the same way: a game of run-aways. For those who aren’t familiar with this game, we start off with a trainer holding the dog while the dog’s owner/handler runs a length, then ducks behind some coverage. This can be behind a tree, behind a corner, anything so long as the owner/handler is out of sight. The trainer releases the dog, which now wants to get back to his owner/handler. Within a short number of tries, the dog usually overshoots their owner/handler. The dog realizes this, the nose goes up, and voila! we have a working dog.
Well, I couldn’t do run-aways in the book. For starters, the dead shamble, they don’t run. Second, the run-away game plays on the dog’s desire to know where their owner/handler went. A dog wouldn’t really want to find a zombie. Fortunately, dogs have been tracking prey for humans almost as long as dogs and humans have been together. So there is a long history of dogs being trained to find animals, if not the undead. For training methods, I looked no farther than Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls. In Rawls’ famous book, the young boy teaches his dogs, Dan and Ann, to trail raccoons by dragging a raccoon hide through the woods where he lived. The main character in my book, Angie Graves, would use a similar method to train her dog to track zombies.
Area dogs (or air scent dogs as they are often called) are taught to go out, locate a subject, then return to their handler. The dog usually brings back a stick that is attached to the dog’s collar or returns and nudges a stick/ball attached to the handler’s belt to indicate the find. In the book, Angie Graves uses this method to find zombies. Not only is it effective, but it is also safe for the dog because she doesn’t want the dog engaging the zombie. That is somebody else’s job, though, I hate to say it, the character does come into contact with zombies, and suddenly the chaser and the chased are turned on each other.
Proofing The Dog Against the Dead
Once I had decided on a training regimen, I ran into another problem: proofing. Thinking this through as a character set in this fictional world, I imagined a zombie dog set loose in a field, running to the local cemetery, and alerting on the first tombstone the dog found. This wouldn’t help anyone out (unless, George Romero-style, the zombie was walking through the graveyard). The dog needed to be able to distinguish between a zombie and regular dead guy (what we call “Fred”). Without giving anything away, the handler character (Angie Graves) found out a way to discriminate between the two so that she could prove that her dog was searching for the subject.
The Head Game
As all handlers come to learn, teaching what I call “the trick” is only part of the training. And I don’t mean the obedience work that is necessary for all dogs, either. I’m talking about the mental side of the dog, the part where the handler must convince an individual to do what is required. Operant conditioning and positive reinforcement are the normal techniques employed, but the nuances are different for every dog.
The dog I first trained to do cadaver work was Mojo. Mojo was an Australian Cattle Dog (ACD)/retriever mix. My family had owned both breeds as pets, and when I brought him home, I was hoping for the brain of a retriever with the small, compact body of an ACD. What I got was pretty much the opposite, which is always a risk involved with mixed breed dogs. So what I had was a smart, loyal dog who was willing to work as long as I kept the game fun and playful. As long as he had that kind of motivation, he worked well. Another dog I had was a purebred Labrador Retriever. It isn’t that she loved to work human remains, she lived for it. Unlike Mojo, she could work a problem until her brain was so fried, it was spilling out her earholes. It was up to me to be able to stop her from overworking. As a Labrador, she loved to eat and would jump through fire for food. Motivation was never a problem. My third dog is a German Shepherd dog. She doesn’t like toys, and she doesn’t like food. Her reward is a brief “good dog” and the chance to keep playing the game. All three have different personalities and motivations for work.
I like to tell this story of another dog I worked with. We were having a hard time finding a motivator. Like my GSD, neither treats, praise, nor toys seemed to really work for this dog. But you know what? The dog loved to run. So as part of his reward system, once the exercise was over, the owner/handler let the dog off lead (no leash laws in our county). It worked for the dog.
The zombie-tracking dog in Dead Dog, Murder, is an amalgamation of all these dogs (and others I’ve met along the way). He’s a rescue dog, found near to death on the highway, lying under a flock of crows, which is called a murder. Murder is a strange dog. He can be antisocial, and he obsesses over a chicken toy, which can make training difficult. But his trainer, Angie, realized that her problem was also her boon. Murder was trained to give up the toy when working, and his reward for finding the zombie was love.
Dead Dog is the second book. It follows closely after Cadaver Dog, which is about training the dog to track a zombie. Dead Dog is about the execution. When a dog is discovered dead in a canyon in the remote canyons of Big Bend National Park, only one Parks Ranger thinks there might be more to this than a dead stray. His investigation leads him to Angie and Murder and bringing them to this vast national park to hunt down zombies.
I like to think of this series as a “zombie thriller.” Zombies are the stepping stone to the real thrills of the book. Anybody who has worked with dogs knows how thrilling working with these beloved animals can be. They know how exciting that moment is when they make that connection with the dog, and the dog is exhibiting the needed behaviors and completing the task. Even if the task is hunting for zombies.
Dead Dog is available on Amazon.com.
Doug Goodman has over ten years experience training human remains dogs and working with search and rescue teams. When he isn’t writing thrillers and working with human remains dogs, he works at the Johnson Space Center. He lives in Houston with his wife, two children, and his dogs. His website is http://dgoodman1.wordpress.com