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.