Monday, December 7, 2009

Trailing: Learning From Marble Cake

Today's lesson in scent theory is a little different. If you have never made a marble cake, step one for this lesson is "Buy a cake mix for marble cake" and step two is "Follow the directions until you have one cake pan of pale batter and one bowl of dark." Take up a small ladle and use it to drizzle a trail which starts thin and ends with a good blob. The thin start is your starting point and the blob is your victim.

Now take a knife and draw it across the line you just made. A deer just crossed your trail -- see what it did to the hanging scent? It's been drawn sideways into a point. If your dog were to follow the scent exactly, you might think she was "crittering." How can you check which she's doing? Let her have her head for a minute and see if she comes back to the line you were on. If she doesn't usually pursue deer, then she's probably not going to start now, and she'll have learned something important about how scent is moved. A car or bicycle will draw scent similarly, so work crossings on low-traffic streets where only one vehicle is likely to have passed between the trail's laying and running.

Now take the knife to a different part of your cake trail and pass it back and forth across the same spot several times. This is a higher-traffic street or footpath. If the scent was hanging heavily to start with, the dog would understandably believe that the person had gone three ways at once. Rather than letting her make an arbitrary decision, teach her to cross the thoroughfare first and check the other side, then choose a path after checking down the straight line. Your training partner should show your dog a straightaway first. Once your dog has mastered a straight-line crossing of a traffic-muddled scent, she can learn that the victim may also turn to travel along the road. If she learns the turn first, though, you may have trouble convincing her that the straight line is possible.

Now finish following the directions on the box and enjoy the results!

Puppy Training Video

Puppy training may not be what everyone else watches this video for, but it's what stood out to me. See all that food? See how early this little rugrat starts her training? And yet she still has a unique personality.

The Video

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Puppy Mills and an Econ Lesson

I admit it -- there isn't a hard and fast definition of a "puppy mill." Some people want to define it as anyplace that one dog is bred to another, which is probably throwing the baby out with the bath. After all, a dog lover is a person who loves to live with dogs, and if nobody's making more, we won't be living with dogs for long. Now that I've lived with a feral-born pup for a while, that's not something I want as my only source of canine companionship. Bruce is a nice boy, but he's no shepherd.

Other definitions are perhaps too precise. "Any kennel producing more than 25 puppies a year," for instance, overlooks that some breeds would require ten breedings to reach that level and others perhaps three. It's far easier to do the health and genetics research for three litters than for ten.

I'm inclined to leave numbers out of it, nice and precise though they might look to a lawyer or judge. If one batch of dogs is kenneled on wire above another batch, so that the batch below is suffering a slow and steady rain of waste, that's a mill. If any of the dogs are starving beyond the normal thinnish look of a nursing bitch (a condition for which I have great sympathy at present), then we just might be looking at a mill. If medical care is being egregiously overlooked, that's a mill. In other words, if any of the dogs are in a condition we already have laws about, bust the person who owns the joint for having a dog in that condition, and multiply per dog accordingly. There are massive pushes right now for more laws about dog breeding. We don't need more laws. We need to enforce the ones we have.

We also need to put our money where our beliefs are. The pet shop will charge you $500-$1000 for a puppy. For that, you can go to a breeder who did genetic checks, keeps her dogs healthy, and who will want to know a great deal about you before handing over one of her much-loved puppies. You will keep an honest and devoted person from losing quite as much money on her much-loved puppies. If the same amount were spent on "rescuing" the cute pup from the pet store, the money goes to the pet store, the broker who lined the store up with the puppy, and last of all the person who actually bred the puppy, who might see 10% of your sale price. With this much taken off the top, simple economic principles dictate that the miller can't afford veterinary care for the dogs and continue to have a business. The breeder, on the other hand, doesn't have a business. She pays the vet, and eats meat loaf while the dogs get Blue.

And there's my distinction. If the breeder is making a noticeable profit on puppy sales, then probably the breeder is a miller. There are exceptions. Breeders whose dogs are titled producers and whose dogs' genes are very much in demand sometimes do make a profit simply by controlling a rare and desired commodity. On the whole, they lost money for years before getting to that level.

In the war of definition, though, the anti-breeders have one very powerful weapon. They have more compelling pictures. Try to see what I mean. However, in a war of anecdotal evidence, I prefer solid facts to sheer gut-level appeals to fear. The fact is, not every fertile dog is kept in appalling conditions, and a responsible ethical breeder will show you their grounds without a qualm. My fertile dog happens to be loafing beside the baby at the moment. Hopefully this is an environment with which nobody can find fault.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Few Words on the Law and Pickup Trucks

My friend over at The Endangered Owner brings a bit of underreported news to light regarding what an officer may consider grounds to pull over a dog owner here. The gist is, a woman and her daughter were pulled over for having a few Parson/Jack Russell Terriers visible in the back of the pickup truck under a camper top, and the officer was concerned for the dogs' well-being. Endangered uses the word "criminalized," which I find a bit strong considering the woman appears to have been charged with neither crime nor misdemeanor, merely inconvenienced and perhaps a bit frightened at being pulled over. However, it's a little worrying that in cool weather a police officer would be concerned about dogs in crates and under cover. If he was a bit strict with them, rather than being Andy Griffith, recent incidents such as the shooting of the Baltimore animal control officer or the shooting deaths of four might explain why our policemen aren't so mellow as they may or may not have been in the good ol' days.

However, one way and another, this raises a different question for discussion. When would the officer be justified in pulling over a dog owner out of concern for the dog? I've seen dogs dying of heat stroke in the back of pickup trucks, clearly a matter of owner negligence, because someone didn't think about how in the summer a truck bed is a perfect frying pan. One fellow sitting at a gas station ladling ice over his German Shepherd's head looked genuinely regretful, and probably wouldn't have minded if a cop had pulled him over half an hour sooner -- his dog would have had much better odds of survival than she appeared to. Other owners seem to feel their dogs will be fine if crated, but the crate isn't secured or doesn't provide shade or both. The breeze in the back of an open-topped truck just carries away the dog's moisture the faster, making him dehydrate sooner. It exposes him to all the fumes of the great outdoors on a highway -- exhaust, gasoline, and the vapors of hot pavement, all of which can ruin his scenting ability when you arrive where you're going. If he's not tethered or crated, he can fall out; if he is leashed down, he'll get decapitated in an accident or hanged if he does try to jump and the tether is a little too long. So, gentle readers, DON'T PUT YOUR DOG IN THE UNCOVERED BACK OF A PICKUP. Save yourself a heartbreak or an animal cruelty charge, or quite possibly both.

The camper-top helps. It provides shade and keeps the worst of the weather off. In conjunction with crating and with the windows open, it keeps the dogs pretty safe from the outside world of climate and injury. Personally, though I've hauled a dog that way a couple of times, I hate it. If the dog isn't sharing the passenger compartment with me, I don't know how hot she's getting, whether she's complaining, whether she's knocked her water bucket around or vomited on herself, or any of the other things I can keep track of fine by ear and nose. At that level, it's a personal choice. The good part about the camper top is that you don't have to leave your passenger compartment so wide-open when you park for lunch; you just have to get the back of the truck in the shade.

This discussion suggests another question, though: that of ownership versus guardianship. As best I understand the distinction, I own my stereo but have guardianship over my child, as in "This note must be signed by a parent or guardian." The stereo, or anything else I own, I can treat however I wish: it is a thing without its own interests. If I wish to take it out back and beat it with a sledgehammer, that's my right. My child, on the other hand, despite being mine, I genuinely believe is better off living in a society where his parent can do no such thing without severe punishment. Should we own our animals or be their guardians? I consider them to be beings with interests, and so vote for guardianship. This doesn't mean they'd have the right to vote (for instance) any more than my infant does; it just means their interests can be taken as existing for legal purposes. They cannot be beaten, starved, electrocuted, or what have you by the people they live with.

Update from the Blogger

Well, the good news is, I'm no longer trying to work out the logistics of tracking while pregnant. Bad news is, tracking with a baby in a sling, especially a baby who is outgrowing the sling at such an amazing rate, is still a logistical puzzle and a half. However, there are a few nice linkies in the blogroll to keep everyone happy, and I can get back to obedience work anytime I can get a couple of hands free.

And yes, the baby is fine. Born at 8 lb 12.6 oz and gaining roughly a pound a week (!) so he's pretty clearly a healthy sort. By the time he's two he'll have to carry me if he wants to cuddle. For now, he's merely on the brink of needing a new baby seat and a new rig for me to carry him without arm fatigue. Everything seems to top out at 20 lbs, and he can't hold his head up reliably yet.

The dogs are adapting well. Bruce and Dustin are keen on being big brothers, though they really wish the little one would learn to throw a ball or something fun like that. I tell them to be patient. The older male is more the doting-uncle type, and the female is utterly uninterested in this threat to her status as supreme ruler of the home. Dustin has, at least, settled down a bit in his role as Diaper Alert, since for the first few days he was something of an Adrian Monk about it all. He's nearly given up hope that the baby will ever be properly housebroken.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Various Updates from the Dog World

Have you heard the blue-green algae alerts yet? In case you haven't, read warnings for duck-hunters who use dogs. This stuff isn't good for the people or the ducks, either -- in fact, I'd worry about eating a duck who'd been dabbling in this stuff. Environmentalists aren't just tree-hugging fanatics. They're also people who like to take their dogs and children swimming, or who are keen to breathe in spite of living beside a pond.

Anyway. On a lighter note, a great deal can be said of my recent dog-training with a single sentence. "I've been eating all the string cheese myself." Dustin has had a little rally training, Bruce a little training in manners and socialization, and that's about it. I did take Dustin with me to a dog show this weekend so he could re-learn what that was all about. Last time we went to one, he spent all his time flirting with the sable girls, since this was about two months after Sunny died and we both were still thinking of her a lot. This time, he flirted with ALL the girls. However, I think the small working-lines sable was still his pick for first-in-harem. He seemed quite disappointed when we left without a single one of all those pretty bitches, and snoodled around the car twice to make sure I hadn't stashed one in the glove compartment. OFA first, I told him.

After his last bath, a couple of weeks ago, we did practice stacking in the driveway. His head's a bit too far to his right, there in the picture, as I bait him with a stick, but he's being pretty good -- especially for a dog with no leash or collar and a great deal of desire to grab that match-sized piece of wood. With some attention work, so he'll be that good somewhere other than the driveway, he'll be ready to go get some rally titles. Right now, though, he still has to learn that "sit" means "sit" regardless of environment. Either that or I have to start hosting AKC obedience events in my living room.

Bruce has not outgrown his "skitzies," as Mary Adelman knowledgeably calls them. I still worry that they are genetic and the reason his mother is/was feral. I did tote him downtown the other day to watch people go by. He fear-growled very little, but spent the whole trip with his tail clamped between his legs even though nobody came within ten feet of us. I should add this isn't a fear of everything. He was standing on the sort of wire grate that most dogs won't go near, not at all fazed by the funny footing. He'll jump things that are far too big for him just because he sees Dustin (twice his size) do it too. He's just terrified of people. Perhaps a few dozen more trips to places where nobody hurts him, and most people try to give him goodies, will help. Perhaps not. I don't know what we do if he gets worse instead of better and turns out to be a total fear-biter.

And yes, I do know the civically-responsible answer to that, but we've become rather fond of the little fellow. At home with his familiar people, he's a perfect love.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Recent Tracking Ventures

I have tracked with the boys lately. Honest! Not a lot, though.

Dustin is well-indoctrinated by now. He knows the routine of finding the article and downing on it, and if we end up taking off a week or three for any reason it doesn't really faze him much. I'm beginning to vary the distance between articles, which gets his nose down a lot more solidly. If he can count on a set distance, he tends to meander out to about that distance and then circle until he hits what he expects to hit. If he can't, he starts actually following the line of crushed grass and whatever bits of my scent are in it. This is, after all, the point! "Good track!"

Bruce has changed. Before his case of parvo, he'd figured out the line of scent and the down on the articles, and he liked the game because it earned him cheese AND he was using his nose. Now -- he's forgotten the game, I think, during his quarantine layoff and general rebuilding, but that doesn't seem to be all of it. I'm not sure if the high fever affected his brain and nose or not, but he doesn't seem to be as keen. Pre-parvo he followed my husband's scent down the driveway and back just for fun. Now he seems more oriented on vision and taste (he's barfed up the other half of a pair of socks, now, and should be feeling better than he was...) and less on smell.

On the other hand, this could be the general battiness of adolescence. He's seven months old and acting like a complete doofus about a great many things. People? Grr. People who have given him treats in the past, including in the past five minutes? Still Grr. I'm trying not to make a huge deal about this in either direction. He's allowed to Grr at people approaching the car without my permission. Otherwise, I'd rather he didn't fuss at houseguests, random pedestrians, and the PetCo staff, and I do tell him so in a low-key way.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy

Ted Kennedy has died.

Now, this may seem like an odd thing to post to a dog-blog, but among other things, Kennedy was a fan of the Portuguese Water Dog. This isn't the sort of item that generally goes into the biographies of our senators except in passing, though perhaps it should -- I'd like to know whether I'm voting for a whippet person, or a cocker person, or perhaps a boa-constrictor person when I go to the polls. (I, for one, was pleased to learn that our current VP is a shepherd person.) However, he introduced the First Family to the breed, and we certainly all heard about that in the dog world.

PWDs are nice dogs, though they have the traits I tell people to watch out for when looking for a family pet. They're energetic and clever. This sounds like a good thing. Some families, however, need mildly foolish semi-animate furniture and will not be at all happy with a PWD. Know thyself, said the philosopher, though I don't think he added before you go dog-shopping.

At any rate, there is now an opening in the Senate for a PWD person. Here's hoping it is sensibly filled with the sort of man or woman who can handle some energy and intelligence about the home. Loving the PWD -- fuzzy, goofy, fun-loving, problem-solving breed that it is -- is a trait that spoke well of Senator Kennedy.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"Write About Dogs!"

George Booth of The New Yorker has a fairly famous cartoon with the caption I've just used as a title. A frazzled male writer sits on the porch of a weathered beachside house, typewriter before him, blank page fed into typewriter, as his wife offers advice. Several dogs loaf on the floor around him.

Clearly I write about dogs. In fact, two semi-fictional works about Sunny are now accepted. One is in print at Emerald Tales, and I've been strictly ordered to tell all future readers that it needs a tissue warning. Another, a little flashfic, has been accepted at Ruthless Peoples Magazine -- to my great surprise and delight, since I submitted it yesterday.

However, sometimes I write about non-dog subjects, too, and while questing for markets I came across a call for Hint Fiction. What's hint fiction? Robert Swartwood, who seems to have invented the term, defines it as "a story of 25 words or less that suggests a larger, more complex story." For details, if you think this sounds like something fun, go to for the anthology guidelines. Personally, I mean to give it a try. If nothing else, brevity hones the writing tools. Besides, a dollar a word on acceptance is pretty darned fine.

Learning by Example

Some dog breeds are known for learning by watching others of their type. Border collies, for instance, have been trained for generations by getting plonked into the sheep fields to work with older border collies. Quite a few of the herding breeds are trained for the job with instructions that start off, "Well, you put your new dog out there with your old dog..." which makes life difficult if you're training your first one.

However, little Bruce is no herding breed. I'm not too sure what he is -- he looks a bit like a working-line Lab as he gets older -- but he's definitely not built for sheep or cow control. He's living his life with shepherds, though, and he likes to please the humans, so he's doing his darnedest to be a German Shepherd Dog regardless of his genetics.

This isn't always obvious, but he gave away the game yesterday. Sunny taught Dustin to bark and whoop with excitement over an impending ball game, it seems. McCoy likes to have a good yawp now and again too as we approach the door and I juggle toys for the pack. Bruce decided yesterday morning that he, too, could join in the noisy fun. He threw his head up and bawled like a hound.

And then he looked around with a puzzled expression on his face. "Who did that? What was that strange noise? I certainly never made such a sound!" After a moment's thought, he barked the way he has lately, which is to say he made a fairly threatening sound which imitates a shepherd's alert-bark. I'm onto him now, though. That's not his real vocalization. His mutters, whoops, and that bawl -- those are real. I may have to find him a hound-dog buddy to chum around with, just so he can learn there are dogs other than shepherds in the world.

Monday, August 17, 2009

What Are Dogs Seeing?

Some people claim that dogs have a higher social intelligence for reading people than people themselves do. It isn't usually phrased this way, of course. Usually people say, "Well, my dog didn't like him, so I don't want him around," or words to that effect. I've known some dogs who were pretty indiscriminate -- throw a toy a few times, or feed them, and you're in -- but there have been some odd moments.

We have a new (well, all right, somewhat used, but new to us) television at the house now, bigger and lower to the ground than the old one. The puppies are intrigued. Wanda liked watching television to begin with, and now takes a great interest in blue things, such as the flying wizard-bird in the second Conan movie. Dogs can see blue. She's also been entranced by baseball uniforms and odd things of that sort. She's a very entertaining dog.

Bruce, on the other hand, watches faces. Most of the time he is a mild and sweet little fellow. The other night, a brief clip of Michael Richards (Kramer) ranting about race set him off for the next fifteen minutes, and he calmed only for a game of chase-the-treat. Even after that, the pup kept giving the TV suspicious looks, as though it might let that stranger into our home again at any moment. The next night a sports program showed Michael Vick's recent statements on putting the past behind him. In other words, perhaps in future he will not strangle, electrocute, drown, or bludgeon any more pit bulls. Bruce took one look at that supposedly-repentant face looming large and flew into a full snarling barking rage.

Smart boy, I say.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Parvo Convalescence

Our parvovirus victim Bruce is recovering well. He's still isolated from his sister, as the virus is supposed to be extremely thick in his stool right now, and so he's still living on a concrete surface which is regularly washed down with bleach-water. If there's one thing we DON'T need, it's a nice rich layer of parvovirus on our property.

I'm still feeding him boiled chicken and rice, this batch with a potato added for some extra minerals. He's still getting a spoonful of yogurt, as well, with each meal, though sometimes he skips that bit. By now, though, he's beginning to get regular puppy kibble as well, and some of the gizzard blend I give to everyone else. It's full of nice immune system boosters like vitamin C and echinacea, and it doesn't seem to be hurting him any.

In fact, he's acting perfectly well these days. This morning we engaged in his own personal version of fetch, which is more like playing catch with a toddler than anything else. He doesn't bring the toy back. He flings it back. His aim is decent; it's usually within a couple of feet of my ankles. He runs in crazy circles and shuttles between tosses. He's getting exercise and we're interacting, which is pretty much the point, so this is an "If it ain't broke, don't break it" situation. Formal retrieves are for formal retrieves. Games should be games.

This morning he also demonstrated his other unusual talent, or pastime, or however one wishes to look at it. He is a first-class mumbler. I was treated to a soliloquy roughly half an hour long this morning because, though his pen is roofed over, the roof was not up to holding out the rain we were having and there was a waterfall where he wished to relieve himself. I didn't understand a word, mind you, but the gist was clear enough. Teaching him "Speak" should be very easy! Eventually the rain let up, the waterfall faded to a dribble, and he deposited a pile at the greatest possible distance from his food and bed. I approved and cleaned it up. He really is doing his darnedest to be a good boy. We'll both be happier when all the contracted work on the house is done.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Wolf moment

Wolves, dogs, close enough. If you're keeping tabs on wildlife and outdoor living, you probably have heard about the wolf hunts in Alaska.

Males vs. Females

Nearly everyone goes to look at the new litter of puppies, the rescue website, or the animal shelter's holdings with a notion in mind of what they want. Big, small; outgoing, reserved; color preference; male or female.

Especially male or female.

Right now, I have a surprising stash of male dogs -- three, which is three more than usual. They're good fellows, and very solicitous, and very protective. However, I like to go for walks with my dogs, and I like to actually walk when we do this. Today, Dustin and I went for a short little hike. We probably managed an average speed of about three miles an hour, but that was an average. Boy dogs stop. A lot.

Girl dogs, on the other hand, do sometimes like to mark territory. However, the most territorial girls I've known still consider three or four markings to be enough to claim the whole park for their own. With a certain sort of self-confidence, in fact, some girls will claim all of Yellowstone with one good mark. "It's cool. I like it. There, now it's mine."

The boy will claim each and every vertical thing along the way. "Mine, mine, mine... Oh, yeah, hold up, that's mine, too." It does get to be a bit of a drag.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Dogs, Mirrors, and Intelligence

I've been told various solid facts about dogs and mirrors: dogs aren't visual enough to notice reflections, they don't understand reflections, they lose interest as soon as they realize they can't smell the other dog, and so on.

Here's your solid fact from me: it depends on the dog.

Tasha, our longcoat shepherd, will ride in the back of the car and look at us in the rearview. She likes to check in that way. There is definite eye contact, and if we smile at her, she will thump her tail. This is supposed to be beyond canine comprehension, as though we'd found her programming the DVR to record "Good Dog U." for later. She seems to find it quite natural.

Wanda, now five and a half months old, has been experimenting with the bedroom in the mirror. The other night, I was sitting on the bed, and she decided to have a good gawk at my reflection. I waved at her reflection. She wagged a little and turned to look straight at me. Then she got up, walked around the dresser, and peered at where my reflection would have seemed to her to be located. Then she went back to the mirror and watched me in it again. She went back and forth to make sure there was only one of me a couple of times. When I laughed, she cocked her head and pondered, apparently, that she only heard one of me. She seems now to have a pretty good idea of how a mirror works -- but she was experimenting to find out. To me, both the experimenting and the apparent comprehension suggest a good deal of intelligence.

With Dustin, I'm intending to set up an experiment. I want to put him in a sit-stay facing a mirror, then stand behind him and give him a "down" signal he can only see in the reflection. If he goes down, he sees the image and understands it's a representation of the real world. If he doesn't respond, then he's not processing enough visual information to mean much to him. If he looks over his shoulder to see if I mean it, then he is aware the reflection isn't real but doesn't quite get the connection to the real event. At least, that's how I'm inclined to interpret the possibilities -- but I haven't tried it yet.

Those readers with obedience-trained dogs -- try it! Leave me a comment letting me know how it turned out!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Parvo Followup

Bruce is home! I now call him the solid-gold retriever. He's going to have to be all kinds of good boy now, but he's alive and he's eating a little, and he's very, very glad to see his people again.

The scary part is now keeping him whole, healthy, and away from his sister for a bit. Apparently parvovirus stays in the system and is shed through fecal material for a good two weeks after the puppy recovers. We've put up an isolation pen on concrete so we can clean up after him easily and thoroughly. Bleach kills the virus. Very little else does.

We have all sorts of enticing but mild goodies for him, too. Boiled chicken with rice, yogurt, very tiny pieces of steak -- he seems rather pleased by all the smorgasboard, though still quite peckish. We're working out a rotation of who cares for him at which time of day (two sets of pills) and how we're going to keep ourselves disinfected. I'm hoping to do a little obedience with him during our snuggle sessions, just to give him something to think about besides the squirrels which will no doubt tease him from beyond the fence.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Parvo Worries

Our puppy has parvo. More accurately, one of our puppies has parvovirus, and the other, to date, does not.

They have had the same vaccines on the same days. They play together and go pretty much everywhere together. However, Bruce has been at the vet since Friday being stuffed full of antivomiting, antidiarrheal, antibiotic, and antiviral drugs along with everything else in a well-rounded IV drip, being force-fed for intestinal stability, and so on. Poor puppy. I suppose once this is all over, presuming he makes it, he'll be used to being handled by people other than his two favorites. Meanwhile, Wanda is happily soaking up all her usual attention plus what he'd usually get, eating like a pony (she's too small to eat like a horse), and generally being her usual bratty cute self.

Bruce is also beginning to do a sort of bobble-head thing that worries his vets greatly. They can come up with all sorts of opportunistic diseases which might cause such a thing. I suspect, though, it is an exaggeration of a longtime Bruce trait, which is that if he is very tired and a little worried about falling asleep, he'll sit and nod for quite some time before giving up and wilting. In a strange scary place full of strange scary people, he wouldn't sleep readily.

We took him over to the emergency clinic from the regular one last night, since the span from the last person leaving on Sunday to the first one in on Monday seemed like a long time if we were worried about spiking fevers, septic attacks, or seizures. As it turned out, his temperature did go up a bit, but it also went back down again, and he was pretty stable all night. I'd call the money worthwhile for the peace of mind, but I, for one, had none anyway.

If he pulls through, we won't be looking for another home for him anymore. I think we've settled that he's our dog, whether we go sailing on to a limited registration and some spiffy performance titles or just hang out on the couch together.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Tracking Update

Both dogs are still on baby-level tracks, though they're out to prove to me that they're ready for harder ones.

I ran Dustin on an hour-and-a-half old track, two turns, fifteen paces between articles, at noon. Aside from some distraction to watch a pedestrian passing the yard, he did quite well. He is sharp-nosed enough to work it partially as a trailing problem, though, and was clearly working along the edge of some shrubbery a couple of feet from the track at one point. A couple of feet, I can live with, provided he's going the right direction.

Bruce worked a straight line, only three articles, two hours old. Since he also followed my husband's track to see what had been going on with the garbage the other day -- also two hours, on the macadam driveway, for no better reason than his own curiosity -- I was confident he'd do okay. He can't always remember to down on the articles, but he finds them himself with a good low nose. Not bad for having done this perhaps ten times. I made the articles fewer and farther apart not for the sake of my back, though it appreciated stooping less, but because the pup attention span seems to be better on the track line than it is for downing. I'm willing to adjust to the pup.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Returning after a Dry Spell

How much does a dog forget? Some of that depends on the exercise, some on how often the command has been used before. It's been three weeks exactly since I last tracked with Bruce and Dustin, but we tried it this morning.

Sometimes health concerns (in this case, a strained muscle in me) interfere, and sometimes weather (in this case, highs in the high 90s, which is Too Darned Hot) interferes. The nice thing about scent training is that it's so instinct-based the dog is unlikely to forget altogether. He may not remember what your words mean, but he will probably remember something of line-of-scent and find-the-thing on his own terms. For you, it's largely a matter of re-attaching the labels.

To my surprise, Bruce jogged over to his tracking flag, discovered there was an article beside it, and lay down on it. He'd worked five little puzzles before this, downing on an article a grand total of twenty-five times before. For whatever reason, though, he remembered this was the way to earn cheese. He also sniffed out the first two articles on the track very nicely. The last two were less nice. It turned out I'd laid his track right through Pee-and-Poo Central without realizing it, and his distraction threshold is still very low. He's not quite five months old, so we just plodded on through with lots of "Look! There's one!" and cheese and belly rubs. On a long track, this would have been dreadfully frustrating for both of us. On a forty-short-step track, it's not a big deal. On the next one, he'll probably be a more focused boy, as now he knows the reward for getting to the end is so much cheese even he's not sure he can eat it all.

Dustin, too, did pretty well. He had eight articles, missed one plastic one -- and that for the excellent reason that he was too enthusiastic to stop for it. He still has a slight tendency to zigzag to read the news, but that's fading as his fondness for the puzzle is growing. He actually worked better after the layoff than he did when we've worked every day for a week, and there's probably a lesson for me in that. I had him do an air-scent search for the missing article, which puzzled him a little but which we did get sorted out, and then we did some agility-type fun. Now that I know he can get there, I'll have to get a picture of him on the roof of the outbuilding. This time I didn't have the camera handy and only asked if he wanted to get the stick that was up there. From the right angle, this could be a rather impressive shot.

Perhaps I can teach him to clean the gutters...

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Instinctive Behaviors Also Take Practice

Lots of dogs have the instinct to trail after an interesting scent. Lots of dogs also have the instinct to push livestock from one place to another, or to retrieve. They still need practice, though, to follow their instincts well.

Need proof? For a male dog, lifting his hind leg to pee -- marking territory and indicating his great stature (or faking it) -- is instinctive. The more alpha his aspirations, the stronger the drive to do it. Bruce has now reached the hopeful age.

But does he get it right? Nope. Instead of the ballet-turnout leg hike, he simply picks his left hind foot up. His timing is often a bit off; he's been known to finish his business, walk a couple of steps, then pause to pick up the foot thoughtfully with an air of having forgotten something. Practice makes perfect. He has an older male to observe and other dogs' markings to ponder. I'm sure he'll get the hang of it all eventually. For now, though, he's entertaining me and giving himself something to think about.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Scent and the Aging Dog

As your dog gets older, he may lose some of his sensory abilities. You're probably used to thinking of him as getting hard of hearing, or maybe a little blind, but the nose can weaken too. His olfactory powers may not be what they used to be, or, as the Lady and the Tramp line would have it, "You mean you don't smell as good as you used to?"

This morning, we had a little evidence of this. I took the shepherds out to play ball, a perfectly ordinary morning activity. Tasha chased hers; McCoy (pictured in his favorite spot) danced out and looked back at me at exactly the wrong moment as usual. The ball bounced behind him, hit a tussock, and disappeared behind a tree.

And when I say disappeared, I mean disappeared. Half an hour of looking and we still haven't found it, though we all had a bit of exercise from trying. Usually I rely on the dogs' noses at least as much as on my sense of sight, but they couldn't find it either. Part of this is that Dustin and Tasha both figure McCoy's ball is his lookout and they aren't much help. Part of this is that he really doesn't have much sense of smell anymore. It's times like this that I really miss Sunny's help, as she was the only one willing to accept a possessive form in a sentence: she understood that "Find McCoy's ball," meant "I know that your toy is in my hand and you don't have to tell me about that one; look for the missing one."

Dustin, on the other hand, feels that if I have a ball in my hand, there's no need to go questing elsewhere for a different one. Tasha's feelings are less clear, but she's also less bonded to me, so the vibe I usually get from her is that if I can't find it myself I'm not good for much.

My best guess is that when Dustin looped behind the tree he came out the other side with McCoy's ball, then dropped it somewhere when I threw his own. Now, I thought his jaws were empty the whole time, but if they were, the aliens have beamed McCoy's ball away for DNA testing. I would quite sympathize if they want to replicate the German Shepherd on their own planet, and I'd much rather they beamed up the ball than the dog (and since he's neutered, the DNA may as well come from his saliva as anywhere), but since he never actually caught the thing today, those aliens are going to be working with some very stale spittle.

Most likely, though, it'll turn up by zinging across the yard next time we mow.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Animal Intelligence

There are researchers working on what animals know, how intelligent they are, and other such questions that are hard to measure in a laboratory. Some wonderful work has been done on primates. A few gray parrots have proven that linguistic abilities aren't the exclusive property of humans, and that they aren't just "parroting." Dogs -- well, we seem to feel as though we know them well enough. Some of them have bigger comprehended vocabularies than others, but there's remarkably little formal research done on the animal that lies on our feet while we type the reports.

Those of us with dogs, though, all collect our little anecdotes. One of the researches on primates is the ability to use symbols to indicate "same" and "different." I never thought to try to teach my dogs symbols in the sense of something they could use to communicate with me, but "same" and "different" is the basis of all scent work. Sunny and I started with "Find another one." For tracking, that meant finding each article, regardless of material, that smelled like the tracklayer. She was willing to extrapolate, however, and could do "Find another one" to mean a set of cadaver samples, shreds of a dollar bill hit by a lawnmower, and other things, ignoring my scent if it happened to be on the object. Technically, this meant she was willing to work in different conceptual categories: match the human scent or match the object's core scent. This turned out to give us trouble on the utility-dog exercise of retrieving the most recently handled scent article; she wanted to show me all the things that matched instead of bringing back the one that didn't -- the only one of the set I'd handled -- even though she was happy enough to fetch "My stick" in the yard.

I'm still experimenting on my dogs to see just what concepts underlie some of the things they consider perfectly ordinary behavior. Doing scent work with them helps; it means I have a better idea how they see the world, which helps me understand how they make decisions. Knowing roughly how little color vision they have helps too. They're not being foolish when they can't find a red toy in green grass from the windward side. They honestly can't see it. When they waltz off after the invisible, they're probably after something perfectly obvious to them, and they're usually nice enough to keep their thoughts to themselves when we don't realize what that obvious thing is. After watching a puppy trailing a single ant across concrete for several minutes, I've learned how amazing their perceptions and dedications can be if I don't rush to conclude, "Stupid puppy." The same puppy is now working up the food chain to cats and rabbits, though never for very far.

Another way to look at intelligence, of course, is to look at persistance. My husband's childhood dog watched the family opening doors and tried to work the knob himself. His paws and the knob weren't compatible, so he stopped trying. Likewise, Sunny once tried to steal my soda as we picnicked on the tailgate of my car. She'd already had some of my burger, freely given, and a few fries; she had her own cup of water, but the coke smelled more interesting. I looked over and she had her mouth on my straw. Since dogs cannot suck things up straws, of course, she didn't get any, and (sadly, since I didn't have a camera handy at that moment) she never bothered to try again. Things that did work, of course, she was happy to repeat.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Train For What You Want

There are a few deceptively simple rules of dog training. The one that seems to be easiest to unintentionally mess up is "Don't teach the dog something that isn't what you want her to do." Some of it is that you have an active little brain sitting beside your left foot, soaking up all sorts of information you don't even realize you're telegraphing. Some of it is that we're working on pretty complex tasks without realizing that, either. Some of it is simply that we don't sit down and define our goals before we start.

For instance, we may have the goal, "I want a tracking championship from the AKC for this dog." This is laudible. We trot out the door, tracking articles tucked into armpit, tracking flags clutched in grubby little fists, and -- now what? We have the dog, the harness, the long line, and probably four contradictory books to work from. We have a buddy or two who's managed to teach a dog something at some point. We have a dog sitting nicely saying, "You want me to do what?"

Now it's time to clarify the goals. The tracking champion has to complete a TD, a TDX, and a VST title to get the overall title. Each requires a few different skills. For the TD, the dog needs to be able to work a quarter-mile of track with three to five changes of direction, aged 30 minutes to 2 hours. The track is laid by a stranger. The dog must find the article (a glove or wallet) at the end without going too far from the actual line of footprints, working on a long leash, with the handler able to say encouraging things. The TDX is longer, with up to seven changes of direction, and older -- three to five hours -- with cross tracks by other humans. Both are primarily on vegetation, though the TDX may have obstacles such as street crossings. The VST is a different sort of problem altogether. It may run down sidewalks or streets, through buildings, and into other terrain with no vegetation, and it contains scent articles of several different materials.

Full information may be found at, but the PDF files with the details are currently balking at working with my computer -- go figure.

Remember, according to Syrotuck's research and to most dogs's behavior, a track on vegetation at one to four hours is a very different thing from a trail at thirty minutes, or, oddly enough, five hours. To earn the title, your dog will have to work both sorts of scent. Dogs who start with trail scent tend to have problems switching to track scent (though not all of them do), so you will probably want to start with track scent. Since it's primarly crushed-vegetation scent, you will then have to work out a system for getting your dog to care about it.

Likewise, you're going to have to get your dog to care about articles. This is different from police and SAR searches; your dog doesn't get the person at the end, just a glove. For a shy dog, this is great. For a person-oriented dog, a glove is nothing worth a quarter-mile of sniffing unless you make it so, and he's probably not going to feel any need to show it to you if you don't teach him that's what you want. To pass the VST, he's going to have to find all sorts of peculiar objects that smell of the tracklayer, possibly including a water bottle or soda can, and he's going to have to distinguish those in a way that makes you stop to pick them up. After all, the person on the end of the leash also has to pass the test. A rewarded down on the article, trained in early, is essential.

So what do you need? You need your dog to know the difference in reliability between ground scent and blown scent. You need her to have a strategy when the scent changes direction. You need a good solid indication on an article, keeping in mind that dogs tend to revert to their first training -- and if it's that tracks don't have articles on them, she may not remember to stop later when they do. You need her focused on the act of tracking, not the person at the end, because there won't be a person at the end. You need her socialized to different terrains before she has to work tracks in them, because asking her to track in a city before she's seen one simply isn't fair to her powers of observation.

Nope, I don't have the CT of my dreams yet. We're working on it, one article and turn at a time, one trip to the city for sniffies at a time, one change of altitude or crossing of driveway at a time. My last dog probably could have earned one, if I'd been able to take three or more weekends to quest after it, but those were the SAR days, and we stayed available for missing-persons calls instead. She worked with a low nose; she worked in the tracking-scent window; she did very well on VST-style problems. In one exercise we tried, she had to find gum wrappers rolled up to the size of toothpicks and planted in sidewalk cracks -- and she did, once she realized that was the goal. This also solved the Law of Custodians, which is that one will come along and clean up your tracking articles as your problem ages even if nobody has done so in the previous week.

For the next few posts: details!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Flushed Puppy Case, PETA, and Plumbers

Absolutely everyone who writes about dogs or children seems to have something to say about the four-year-old boy who flushed a week-old puppy down the toilet. Okay. I’ll bite. I’ll say that while parents should keep an eye on their children and breeders should keep an eye on their puppies, nobody can possibly think of every possibility. For that matter, no adult can think of the range of possibilities for amusement and experimentation that a four-year-old child can. I have enough trouble keeping up with these allegedly-mentally-inferior four-month-old rescued pups.

Things happen (the usual form of this might be appropriate to the toilet-and-sewer part, but not to the age of the child in question).

However, a comment in one of the blogged versions I read was “Where is PETA?” This actually did bother me. PETA’s stance on breeders – ALL breeders – may be found at by anyone willing to look. In fact, reading the mission statements of any group you think you support is always a good idea. How PETA handles the cases it handles may be found at with links to legal documentation. You may find that puppy-flushing looks pretty innocuous after that second link, though.

Where is PETA? Doing what it always does: drumming up money. Far better to just call the plumber.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Tracking: "Believe Your Dog"

The chief reason some dogs, and some people, don't do scentwork well has nothing to do with the nose and everything to do with the brain. At some point, the dog has to learn and accept that his handler doesn't know everything so that he can demonstrate what is called "intelligent disobedience." Force-trained dogs are often not good at this because there's always been a penalty for disagreeing with the handler. Certain agreeable-by-nature dogs aren't good at this because the handler is The Reason To Live. Certain handlers aren't good at humility.

If we humans knew everything, of course, we wouldn't need the dog's nose to tell us where to find the quail, the contraband, or the track.

Today's track with Dustin was aged about 1 3/4 hours, started off along the driveway, made a left across the driveway, went down two levels of terracing, and then made a 90-degree right and a roughly-135-degree right.

Today's track, I the boneheaded handler utterly forgot where to go from the starting flag and had to explain this to Dustin. I will put it down to momentary loss of mind, especially since I thought to myself, "Hey, I'll have to remember this one extra-well because I'm short on flags." However, after a few moments of grave doubt, he went and found the articles for me. I would have preferred this to happen a little further along in his training, but now he knows that some of the responsibility is his. He even found the 9-volt battery I was using as the metal article.

The terracing didn't bother him a bit, even the one that went through some nasty screening brush; if anything, he seemed to appreciate the extra amount of scent left behind on all those bushes. I dropped the lead and let him work that out on his own. He bashed right through where I had and waited in a nice down on the business card a few paces beyond. What errors he made were the sort a dog with an excellent nose makes -- he kept finding those miniscule wisps of trail scent, the ones that scent theory says are not there at that age, and veering onto them instead of the track itself. He'll figure out eventually how to find the shortest distance between two points, even on those occasions when his handler has forgotten which two points we're working with. Meanwhile, and this is no bad thing either, his article search is excellent.

Good boy. Intelligent boy. I'm glad to know that he has learned the lesson of fallibility. I, of course, learned plenty of humility training Sunny, my last scent dog, since she was smarter than not only a fifth grader but also a good many college graduates. For that matter, I have my supply of flags to show me that I am fallible. Somehow, mysteriously, I have gone from having a pack of twenty-five to having barely enough to work three dogs on straight lines. My flags have gone where pens and socks go.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Puppy Socialization and Exercise

We took the puppies to a pet-food shop, one of those nice places that lets you bring in non-people-eating dogs, yesterday. It was something of an adventure.

Bruce is bold about new places and things. He happily browsed toys, smelled the smells, helped Wanda dig a stray cookie out from under a display, and was all kinds of confident -- except with new people.

Wanda is a little shy about new places, worried about cars in the parking lot, and anxious about stairways. However, new people interest her, especially little new people. For whatever reason, our little Dingo-bat likes children entirely out of the goodness of her heart. This is a good thing.

Both of them back-trailed to the car -- through a door, across an underground lot, lots of cement, about 20 minutes after we'd gone in. I was impressed with their noses. This is variable-surface tracking waiting to happen. However, if Bruce wants to use that nose for a living, he's going to have to learn to like what he finds with it! I intend to take him lots of places and carry along a stick of cheese. "Here, will you offer this to my puppy?" If strangers equal cheese, and cheese tends to lead to friendship, then strangers will be potential new friends instead of scary, scary monsters. He liked the cashier who was feeding him goodies just fine.

Wanda demonstrated a new talent this morning. She jumped on the bed. That doesn't sound like much in a casual mention, but the height of the bed is roughly three times the height of her shoulder. It only took a little scrambling. I'm thinking that her ancestors probably include a Jack/Parson Russell Terrier or something equally springy. Since she's so springy and Bruce is so comfortable hanging out on the rocking ottoman, I'm inclined to say either one would be dandy at agility. I'm hoping to knock some basic equipment together soon so that they and Dustin can start using it with me. Great exercise for them, running up ramps and such, while I get to hold still once they're doing it right. I call that a plus.
Wanda has also made a great cognitive leap: she has learned to fib. My longest command is "No sticks in the house." I usually enforce it by closing the door in front of the puppy until the stick is dropped at the threshold. Bruce has figured this one out and leaves his twigs and things outdoors. Wanda, on the other hand, wanted to keep her stick a couple of days ago. She looked at the closed door, looked at me, and then stared ahead with an expression of concentration as she worked the twig entirely into her mouth. Then she looked up at me again with an innocent expression that said plainly, "Whut schtick?" I cracked up -- but didn't open the door. Eventually she realized she hadn't put one over on me and spat it out.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Productive Training Session

I laid two tracks at roughly 7:45 pm, one for Dustin and one for a puppy. I didn’t decide which puppy until later – the one I could get to lie down on hand signal/command with less fuss, which was Bruce, pictured.

At 8:30 (the earliest I could expect to have track scent stronger than trail scent) I took Dustin out to work, and he happily found the starting article by the flag to lie down on it. Though he seemed to need to think about his reward a little (cheddar cheese) and decide whether he liked it, he went on willingly from there. The turn I’d made went straight into the wind by the time we ran it, and Dustin indicted with a high head that he could find all the articles easily enough from there. I reminded him that “Track” meant “Work the line on the ground” anyway, and he obliged. Released from work at the end, he danced off, gave himself a play reward, and discovered the end of the puppy track. He scooped up the cloth glove, showed it to me just to prove he’d found it, danced in a crazy circle, and dropped it on the track again.

I love that he can tell when we’re not working anymore, and that he has such a tidy mind.

I took Bruce to his track next. This was his second. The first had been a mess; he forgot his down, panicked because he didn’t know what I wanted, and his sister ran over to take the rest of the game away from him. The object of the game at present is only to get him to equate discovering an article and lying down on it with reward. Last night, he discovered the first article and puzzled over it, then dropped readily when I asked him to. He sniffed out the second article on his own, natural line-follower that he is, and flopped. I was impressed.

We did both miss the fourth article of the five. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but could tell the scent was concentrated in the right sort of way, and fell all over the place, down here and there and everywhere, and I had a lesson in not using brown leather articles at twilight near brown leaves of similar size while working an inexpert tracker. Still, I expect the next time will be at least as good and possibly better.

Next time I’ll put another out for Wanda, just to see what she makes of it. She had an obedience lesson for steak scraps in place of a track this time. She’s become less grabby at long last, and so I can now get the basic positions (stand, sit, and down) and a passable heel, front, and finish. Of course, getting those without a handful of scraps would be something else again, but the patterns can be obtained and labeled. She’s clever enough.

Both of them are nimble for their age, possibly an effect of their wild first eight weeks. I’d love to start them on the safer bits of agility, ramps and step-over jumps, and they’d enjoy it. First, of course, I have to build the ramps. At present, they make up their own courses around the yard and over sleeping adult dogs.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Organizing Puppy Training

As I may have mentioned, a couple of months ago my spouse and I pulled a couple of half-Golden (or, since we know almost nothing of their mother, perhaps I should say Goldish rather than Golden) puppies out from under a pile of old fence at our new house. The world has not exactly been beating down our door to adopt them, though there have been a couple of nibbles. There are a lot of homeless dogs out there right now, not to mention homeless people.

Now, of course, the pups are almost four months old. Gone are the days of the growling little monster and the catatonically terrified heap of fuzz. That, in fact, lasted about as long as it took me to dish up a little yogurt. The little tykes are now quite sweet. They are crate trained. They have at least a vague grasp of useful words like Sit, Down, and Let's Go. They've proven themselves to have some talents worth developing. Bruce is a natural for putting his nose down and following a trail. His sister is born to do tricks.

Aside from a few cautious ventures onto well-scrubbed floors and around our biggish yard, though, they haven't been out much. I wanted to keep them close to home until I was fairly sure their vaccines had taken. However, 2-4 months is a lovely time for them to learn all those basic useful words mentioned. Lots of praise, lots of cheese, and lots of chicken have given these little tykes the idea that words can relate to actions. It's a good concept and far easier to build in a puppy than in an adult dog. Wanda is learning "Bump!" too, as she is small enough that she'll never hurt anyone by jumping up on purpose, and having that in her repertoire leaves open the possibility of Hearing Ear or other assistance work. She's a nice size for it and exceedingly smart.

However, the vaccines should be in there by now, doing the job, and it's time to start some real work for them. We'll be going more places soon, learning that there are a lot of people in the world and not all of them smell or look the same. We'll be learning that there are dogs other than the big German Shepherds these two are now used to, and that there's more than one cat in the world. And hopefully along with this we're going to learn that "Sit" still means the same thing even in a crowd. Dogs can be very context-dependant. It's why I don't care for collar-yank training, actually -- if the dog learns that "Sit" means "I'm going to yank up on your collar and shove down on your rear" then he doesn't learn what to do off-leash and out of reach, and his handler doesn't learn how to correct the error in translation, either. Too, a physical correction if the dog has genuinely forgotten (and quick, how well do you remember what you learned in third-grade social studies?) doesn't improve memory. It just makes the handler look unreasonable.

If everything settles in as it should, then when we reach that teenagerish stage when the puppies start wondering "What happens if I don't?" we'll still have communication. That's a big conceptual leap, the idea of disobedience, and in some fields (scent work, for instance) a concept the dog really needs to have. Humans can be really, really wrong about what the nose can and cannot determine. A dog who's sure the world comes to an end if he disobeys can fail to communicate all sorts of things, such as that the drugs really aren't in that locker or that the person really is up that tree, just because the handler is so certain of being right. The teenagerish age is when my dogs learn a whole new set of useful words: Today, All the Way, and What Was That. In order, that means to do it faster, completely, and less creatively.

Did you notice an option not yet mentioned? I do use "No." It's for chewing electrical cables. It's for being about to knock down something very heavy or otherwise dangerous. It's for actually doing something that could be lethal to the dog. If I'm not chanting it constantly, they know this is the Never Ever word. If I say it for getting up from a sit, either they discount the word or I've created unnecessary anxiety. "Phooey" works fine for small mistakes, and who among us is perfect?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Research on Scent Dogs

You may want to research a little of the science on canine perception if you like to know how things work before you start trying to do them. How well should you know the nose?

There are several ordinary-language works on how your dog perceives the world. One of the better ones is Chapter 5 of Stephen Budiansky’s The Truth About Dogs. While other sections of the book, such as the pro-alpha stance and the aggression discussion, may be debatable, he’s done a very nice job of summarizing the science on canine perception, particularly on sight and scent. Too, the illustrations of color perception are worth a thousand words. You will see very soon why your silly dog can fetch his blue toy out of the grass so much faster than his red one! Knowing this, you can make your scent articles easy to see for you and invisible to him or plant your decoy in the woods wearing bright red in summer so you can watch your dog's alert as you get close.

For scent work, Pearsall and Verbruggen have an excellent first four chapters in Scent. Their discussion of skin rafts, the microscopic few-cell bits of our surface which we shed constantly, is coherent and understandable, though it may give clean freaks the heebie-jeebies for a little while. Likewise, the length of time a fingerprint can persist is enlightening when your dog takes off on a trail you were pretty sure couldn’t possibly be there. The training portion contradicts some of the science end of the book. I bought the book used, refer often to the first parts for understanding how human scent is deposited and perceived, and largely ignore the rest.

If you want to get technical, try the “Sources” section of the Budiansky and start Googling. There are some excellent articles out there, though many of them are hidden behind the academic-access filter. Another resource is to accept common-source articles. For instance, through searching one academic article, I found accessible ones which cited it, though I could only reach the abstract of the original. “The Use of Scent Detection Dogs” in the Irish Veterinary Journal is beautifully thorough and relatively recent, published in 2006. I have to agree with the final sentence: the limit on how we can utilize a trained dog’s nose is primarily our own imaginations. Find fire ants? Exterminated mice for safe removal before decomposition? The use of human growth hormone by athletes? First, someone has to think to try it.

Even if you never train your dog to search for a specific thing, knowing how sensitive his nose is may make you more likely to listen when he wants you to know you smell different to him. Untrained dogs can still alert their owners to everything from cancer to pregnancy, whether the children are smoking something they shouldn’t, and household risks. However, the humans of the household still have to be willing to take the “I smell something different” body language seriously.

Working The Young Dog

Dustin (above) has now been with me for about a year and a half. I don't work him nearly as hard as I worked Sunny; he doesn't demand it of me, for one thing. At this age, she was deploying on searches. He is still working on formal tracking at a pretty low level and air-scents more or less as he sees fit.

One reason for this aside from his drive (and mine) being lower is that I have no current training partner. For air scent, there's only so far you can go by thanking the dog for pointing out your neighbors -- though it's a great start! Tracking, at least, I can do by myself for quite some time yet.

The method I picked up from Mary Adelman (yes, her again!) with asides from the book by Lue Button is to put out straight lines with articles dropped on them and to teach the dog to find the articles by finding the line. At the articles, the dog should down and take his reward. The chief difference between Adelman and Button is the age of the track suggested. The first recommends working in the one-to-four hour window of track scent, which is primarily crushed vegetation with only traces of human scent. The second suggests working at a full day's age. At this point the crushed-vegetation scent is gone, but a good bit of the human scent is also. Working back from this point apparently worked well for her. With Sunny I did the hour-old tracks first, with very short stretches between articles, and she jumped to day-old tracks easily. However, since human "trail" scent is very strong in the first 45 minutes or so, and in the fourth to tenth hour of the trail or so, when we started running trails with the SAR team which liked to work quickly, she became a little drunk on the scent and followed air currents too easily. She worked well in the tracking window, and once she'd worked a while on the hotter trails, she figured out that if the scent appeared to go one way on the breeze and another on the ground, she should look to the grass.

For now, Dustin is getting articles around every twenty paces -- not too exactly, as while a dog cannot count to twenty as far as I know, they do get a feel for "There ought to be an article around here somewhere." He has to work out turns and some changes of vegetation. I've learned that he doesn't care to work across pine needles and greatly prefers tall grass to short. He's learned that if he works at it he finds the articles and gets cheese. We're getting somewhere.

What's an article for us? I don't lock him in on leather for schutzhund or on gloves and wallets for AKC tracking; someday we may need to find an actual person or run the VST. Real people and VST tracklayers are prone to dropping things like water bottles, soda cans, business cards, and other oddities. He does get some gloves and leather bits. He also has to identify voided credit cards, metal washers, keyrings, and the like. To my surprise, just as Sunny did, he likes metal articles. I like the cloth ones I made from a pair of hot pink sweatpants, as the color is highly visible to me and utterly lost in the grass for the dog.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Commands and Communication

"Training your dog's nose" may be an inaccurate title. The average dog knows how to use his nose just fine, just as readily and easily as you use your eyes. The trick is not in teaching his nose; it's teaching him a vocabulary.

My last scenting dog, Sunny, started off with "Search" to find airborne scent and "Find another one." The latter was useful for tracking: find another thing with the tracklayer's scent on it, and another, and another -- surprise! Those footprints in between link them up. From there we developed "Track."

What I didn't specifically train for some time was article search without a connecting track. However, one fine day, I needed to have a key in my car to run the air conditioner and another to lock it while I was not in it. In finally shutting everything down and leaving the car, I lost one of the two keys. Several hours later, returning to the car, I discovered this. Note: gray plastic-and-steel key, gray parking lot, nighttime with depth-perception-destroying sodium lights. I went home and collected Sunny, then went back.

I showed her my keyring and told her "Take scent," a command she already knew. Then I pointed to the ground as though we were tracking and said "Search" as though we were air-scenting. She looked puzzled for a moment, thoughtful for a second moment, then put her nose down and began casting around.

A few sweeps of the nose later, she took a few steps straight ahead, looked back at me to say quite plainly, "Is this what you wanted? You need new glasses," and lay down on my key. Twelve feet from where we'd started, it had been completely invisible to me. To her, it stood out just fine. Since we could communicate pretty well, she had figured out the key was probably what I'd had in mind, and since I use positive training, she was willing to take a chance on guessing.

When evaluating a training system, whether for scentwork or otherwise, it's worth asking, "What else can I get from this?" In this case, by working from a "Find another one" tracking system from Mary Adelman's method and also making sure my dog knew air scent was a useable and viable option, I "bought two, got article search free." Later, when we took up trailing, which relies on air scent deposited along any surface to which skin rafts can stick, it was far less work than it would have been starting from scratch because my dog knew about scent flows and footprints. Extending the metaphor, we took trailing at a discount.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Track, Trail or Airscent on in!

Welcome to the new home of Sniffydog! I am moving away from for a variety of reasons.

At present, I am working a young German Shepherd Dog, Dustin, in AKC tracking. He is working himself in air scent while I research the military's Silent Scout training -- a post later on this subject, or possibly several. My past experience includes training another GSD in tracking, trailing, air scent, and cadaver while helping friends train their German Shorthair Pointers, Bloodhounds, Labrador Retrievers, Belgian Malinois, and mixes thereof for one or another thing off that list. I am the sort of person to capitalize proper breed names most of the time.

For practice, I also snatch up the nearest rescue to test a new training method on. If it'll work on the baby chow mix or the elderly and traumatized GSD, it will probably also work for your dog, and possibly even on your cat, rat or horse. These methods usually involve setting up a situation to get the desired response, labeling the response, and rewarding with food, praise, petting, and more food.

My main research fallbacks include (but this is the short list) Mary Adelman, Lou Button, Susan Bulanda, and Stephen Budiansky. Further "highly recommended readings" will follow. So will the occasional wacky post on canine misadventures around the house.