Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Situational Awareness - Mind Veils

While walking up one of my favorite hiking routes, I heard some voices coming down the path. Stepping aside into a copse of spruce trees, but still in the open, I politely gave the hikers the right of way on the narrow trail.  Surprisingly, as the couple walked by in animated discussion, they passed right by me without seeing me. How is this possible I thought?

Analyzing the situation, there were several factors involved. The couple was actively engaged in a conversation making them less aware of their surroundings, and they seemed comfortable hiking in the area with no apparent safety concerns. Basically their “situational awareness” was close to non-existent.

For my part, although I was not wearing camouflage, I was dressed in muted earth tone colours and "I did not move" as they walked by. This wasn’t on purpose, in fact I fully expected them to see me and was prepared for the inane greetings of people who pass on the trail. At first blush, I thought that it was this unique combination of circumstances that made it possible to go unnoticed even though I was in plain sight and was in spitting distance of the closest hiker. Subsequent research showed that the real reason for my invisible act is even more surprising.

Although the above-mentioned details were all important factors that helped explain why the hikers did not see me; there was one crucial detail that I had overlooked…the fact that I was “standing inside the tree line.”

Cognitive psychologists who study human awareness have noted that the mind plays a funny trick when it perceives a physical barrier… the default condition is to not see anything beyond a wall. Remarkably, this “wall” doesn’t have to be a solid object but can be any representation of a barrier such as a tree line or even a chain-link fence. Under most circumstances we simply don't look beyond these mental barriers. While explaining this phenomenon in subsequent tracking classes, I coined the phrase “mind veils” to help students understand the cognitive process.  

Armed with this new information, I returned to the same familiar trail, but with one difference…I consciously looked past the veil of trees along the trail. Keep in mind that I have hiked this trail as often as once a week for over forty years so I wasn’t expecting any major revelations. To say that I was wrong would be a gross understatement. On one - 4 kilometer (2.5 miles) pass up the trail, I found items like an unbroken 1960’s glass root beer jug and a wrecked 1950’s car. I also spied a hunting stand, and a game trail camera. More disconcerting was seeing the remains of an abandoned marijuana grow operation that at one time was fairly sophisticated, complete with an underground irrigation system. This discovery begged the question, "how could a large marijuana grow operation be established, cultivated, harvested (for how many years?), and ultimately be abandoned (or shut down) without myself or some other hiker having noticed it? What else are we missing in our daily travels due to our inability to actually see beyond perceived barriers?  On this hike, armed with an understanding of “mind veils” and looking past the wall of the trees lining the path, all of this was easily seen – and in most cases, very close to the trail. What a shock.

The best part is that by recognizing mind veils, a whole new world has opened up. For instance, being a passenger on road trips allows me to observe beyond the trees, fences and other perceived visual barriers along the highway to see what is hidden – often in plain sight. Another example is in architecture. While dining at an industrial chic style restaurant I noticed that the designer overhead lights were suspended from some wood slats equally spaced above the tables. These wood slats are designed as mind veils to catch the eye so the open ceiling joists, exposed wiring, plumbing and HVAC – although easy to see if you are looking beyond the veil, doesn’t normally register with the conscious brain.

The interesting thing is that mind veils are not a new concept. The military has been on to this since the beginning of warfare. Think about snipers positioning themselves well back in a room or artillery placed inside the tree line fringe facing an open expanse. In-fact most ambushes wouldn’t work without the concealment offered by mind veils.

As a tracker, being aware of mind veils will substantially improve our effectiveness. Normally we are so focused on the ground in front of us we often miss clues in the surrounding area. Although the point tracker in a three-person team must be totally focused on the line of sign, the flanking trackers can easily scan their respective fields of observation beyond the veils.

  See you on the trail,



Monday, May 14, 2018

Search Dogs - The nose knows

Search and Rescue K9 

Guest blogger - Kelly Carnochan - Kelly is a "signcutter" level tracker as well as a certified SAR K9 handler. As the lead instructor, Kelly is also a major force at Northern

Most of us have seen search and rescue dogs locating lost children on television shows.  On TV, dogs use any means possible to find a lost person, from sniffing for human scent in the air to sniffing an article of clothing and tracking that individual's unique scent. We do not use scent discrimination (sniffing an article of clothing) to locate the missing person in Canada.

While search and rescue dogs are capable, in principle, of being trained as both air scent and trailing dogs, most dog handlers train their dogs to perform only one of these disciplines.  Therefore, the most valuable dog team, in terms of obtaining a high probability of detection, is one with a dog that can switch back and forth between air scenting and trailing as conditions dictate, I found with my K9 who was trained in air sent would automatically switch when she lost it in the air.
All humans, alive or dead, constantly emit microscopic particles bearing human scent.  Millions of these are airborne and are carried by the wind for considerable distances. They get caught up in the leaves of trees, will sit on the surface of water and many other areas.


Air scent dogs are the type most frequently encountered.  This dog finds the missing lost person by picking up traces of human scent that are drifting in the air, and looks for the "cone" of scent where it is most concentrated.  This dog will not normally discriminate scents, so there is the possibility of a "false alarm" if other people (searchers, citizens) are nearby.  Air scent dogs work best in situations such as large parks or private lands that are closed at the time, since the dog will hone in on any human scent.  The success of an air scent dog will be affected by a number of factors, including wind conditions, air temperature to hot or too cold, time of day, terrain, and presence or absence of contamination (auto exhaust, smoke, etc.).  The best conditions for air scent dogs to work are early mornings or late afternoons on cool, cloudy days when there is a light wind.


Trailing dog is often referred to as a "tracking" dog, although "tracking" and "trailing" are not the same to the purist.  The trailing dog is directed to find a specific person by following minute particles of human tissue or skin cells cast off by the person as he or she travels.  These heavier-than-air particles, which contain this person's scent, will normally be close to the ground or on nearby foliage, so the trailing dog will frequently have its "nose the ground," unlike the air scent dog.

A Bloodhound is typically trained for scent discrimination.  Each dog is usually worked in a harness, on a leash, and given an uncontaminated scent article (such as a piece of clothing) belonging to the missing person.  The dog follows that scent and no other.  At times, the dog may track, following the person's footsteps, or air scent, and home in on the subject's scent. 
Field contamination (scent of others) should not affect his work, because this dog has been given a scent article. He knows the scent he is looking for.  He should be able to trail scents on pavements, streets, grass, water, etc.  If there is a good scent article and a point where the person was last seen, a trailing dog can be the fastest way to find the victim.  Without the scent article and a point where the person was last seen, these dogs cannot work effectively.
While those are the two standard types of search and rescue dogs, there are also other dogs trained to find lost people.


Tracking dog is trained to follow the path of a certain person.  It physically tracks the path of the person, without relying on air scenting.  This dog is usually worked in a harness and on leash. This type of dog is effective when pursuing an escaped criminal if no scent article is available.  These dogs are also used successfully in search and rescue operations.


Disaster dog is trained to find human scent in very unnatural environments, including collapsed structures and areas effected by
tornadoes, earthquakes and other disasters.  This dog is trained to work on unstable surfaces, in small, confined spaces and other settings not usually found in the wilderness.

Cadaver dog reacts to the scent of a dead human.  The dog can be trained for above ground and buried cadaver searches.  Although many dogs have the potential to detect human scent, whether dead or alive, the cadaver dog is trained to locate only human remains.  The training process includes detection of very minute pieces of cadaver or even blood drops in a specified area. I am not sure if cadaver is recognized yet in BC.


Water search dog is trained to detect human scent that is in or under the water, focusing on the scent of the bodily gases that rise up.  As a team, the handler and dog usually work in a boat or along the shoreline.  Because of currents and general changes in the water, it can be hard to pinpoint the location of a body.  To enhance the chance of location, a diver should be ready to search as soon as the dog indicates.  Additional teams, unaware of the previous teams' findings, work independently to indicate a location.   This allows team members to determine the most likely location of the body.
An avalanche search dog is trained to detect human scent that is in or under snow, subsequent to an avalanche.  These dogs are trained to detect the scent under many feet of snow, sometimes, 15 feet or more! You can get more information at


For your best chance of survival, make it easy for the searchers and their canine partners to find you. If you get lost, STAY PUT.  Your chances of survival increase if you don't wander around.  You can aid the human searchers by placing easily seen colored items at eye height and in open areas which can be spotted from the air. Make an SOS out of rocks or branches for air support to see. Don’t be afraid of the canine he may look scary buy he/she will not harm you.

Searchers and family members must remember if you find anything belonging to the lost person do not touch them. If they are touched this will confuse the scent for the canine.

Establishing priorities if you are lost, especially if you are lost long-term, is one of the first steps to survival.  Basic needs are
food, fire, shelter and water Shelter is usually required first, but this can depend on where you are and individual circumstances.  An adult can survive for three weeks without food, but only three days without water.  Never wait until you run out of water before you look for more.  Conserve your supplies.   Remember that the human body loses 4-6 pints of water each day.  Loss of liquids through respiration and perspiration increases with work rate and temperature.  This must be replaced by actual water or water contained in food.  You can retain fluids and keep loss to a minimum by avoiding exertion, not smoking, keeping cool, staying in shade, not lying on hot ground, eating as little as possible, breathing through the nose and not drinking any alcohol.

Considering all of the above, always attempt to remain in the area in which you were first "lost" to make it easier for the rescue party and the specially trained canine to locate you.

*information taken from USSAR and Kelly Carnochan