Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Getting Back To Work

Tracking has been irregular lately. I'm trying to get the most possible good out of the fewest and shortest possible work sessions, generally between prying the rugrat off my leg. Luckily the rugrat likes watching the dogs do stuff outdoors while he sits in his stroller, and tracking makes a happy change from ball-chasing.

Today was hard-ground cold, which is somewhat unusual down here, so I decided to try a polishing technique that some people use as a primary technique. My dogs are mainly trained to find articles and down on them, and then figure out that there's a line of tracks between -- a sort of connect-the-dots approach that I learned from Mary Adelman. My critique of it, at this point, is that the dogs tend to get gung-ho and launch from each article, or blast past turns and then circle to correct, rather than keeping a close nose from start to finish. Today, since it was too cold for ants to get on the food, too cold for the mice and squirrels to be foraging (and in this yard full of nut trees, it's pretty obvious when they're not out), and generally bright and clear otherwise, I went ahead and put a bit of cheese or dried gizzard into each footprint of a short track for Dustin.

Mind you, I mean a really short track for Dustin. Putting food in each footprint means doing a deep knee-bend at each pace, and it's hard to manage the food bits unless you're barehanded, so forty paces with an article every ten paces was all I could manage, along with a turn at fifteen and thirty-three paces. Then I went in and tended to the child, and ended up running the track about two and a half hours later.

Dustin happily snoodled up the goodies in the scent pad beside the tracking flag and headed off down the line. I slowed him down and showed him that the first footprint had cheese in it. He sniffed, stared, pondered -- and lay down on the human-scented article before consuming it. And on the next one. And the next. All told, he put his elbows to the ground (though didn't always bring down the back end) some forty times.

I couldn't fault him for it, either. Since the goal is to have a dog who will do the VST, which has articles of many different materials, I start off with an "Anything could be an article" approach. I have four Schutzhund-appropriate leather articles from Morgan Struble, and treasure them, as I'm far too poor to go cutting up any good leather I happen to have or buying bitsies. Business cards from Mary, gone ratty in my elderly wallet, seemed appropriate for use. So did a laminated ID from the Four Rivers Canine Search, Rescue and Recovery days, fair game for such use because it gave my now-departed Sunny's breed as "German Sherhrud." That may just be my favorite typo of all time, as Sunny certainly didn't conform to the GSD standard as written by any organization in any country. One of my articles is a dead 9-volt battery; another is a large alligator clip, which is nice for holding together the business cards, badges, and defunct ATM cards until they're due to be dropped.

Today, of course, the track was full of things I had handled. As far as Dustin was concerned, they were all quite tasty scent articles.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

PAWS bill in House and Senate

The full text of the Puppy Uniform Protection and Safety Act, Senate form, is available at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d111:SN03424:@@@P. Enjoy. It's an exercise for logicians. I mean, the exercise parts seem reasonable though unenforceable, seeing as we don't have enough USDA employees to inspect our slaughterhouses, never mind trying to determine the appropriate amount of exercise for a Pekingese. The weird part is the beginning, defining a high-operations breeder as someone who produces more than 50 puppies a year for sale as pets AND owns at least one intact bitch over the age of four months.

So, if you own an intact bitch over four months (personally I don't like to spay that young) but produce fewer than 50 puppies per year by her (oof!), you should be fine. Likewise, if you don't own even part of a reproductive bitch but successfully pull more than 50 puppies out of a hat, you're fine. Presumably that last is meant to put rescue operations in the clear. However, also, if you produce more than 50 puppies but they're not being sold as pets -- work, say, or show prospects -- it sounds like you're still in the clear. Since anyone can claim they're producing working or show prospects, this pretty much defangs whatever is left of the bill. It's in large part a dead damn waste of ink and time. The only real hazard in it for most respectable breeders is for those who take the extra care of their dogs to co-own them, which can increase the number of puppies you produce in a most unfair manner if you co-own ten of your dogs for their own safety.

Now, if we were funding the USDA to actually enforce the already existing animal welfare laws and giving them the artillery necessary to go after Joe Redneck's huge and heavily-guarded chicken-wire puppy mill operation once they're done cleaning up our food supply, that would be great. As it is, this bill makes a lot of mild-mannered law-abiding retirement-age dog fanciers who adore their critters very nervous and accomplishes very little else. It also, incidentally, completely overlooks catteries.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Focusing Energies

I've been off getting published, and so have not been posting much. Sorry! I'm also doing a quick typo check of the second edition of The German Shepherd Dog Handbook by Dr. Mary Belle Brazil-Adelman, which is coming out for general purchase soon.

I've also stopped tracking with Bruce for the moment, and am letting him do a little general maturing. He is, very gradually, rediscovering object permanence and focus, both of which would be a help. I'm wondering if anyone else has discovered serious mental damage in their dogs from a case of parvo and its related high temperatures.

Dustin is more rewarding, and I've been working him at least a couple of times a week lately. He's still prone to drifting off on other interesting things, but he'll mostly stay on the line if the payment system strikes him as good enough. Luckily, he'll still work for Charlee Bear's treats. Today I laid a track for him in our outrageous grass (the lawnmower's part replacement is apparently lost in shipping) while all was still wet and ran it once it had dried out. My shoes are still sodden, but he did quite well on finding all the articles and was willing to keep going. He also didn't unload his bowels on the track, which I greatly appreciate.

I'll post the third part of Scentwork for Showdogs soon. Meanwhile, if you're trying it, practice, practice!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day Thoughts on Canine SAR

By remarkable coincidence, I received an email from AKC's Companion Animal Recovery program with a story on their support of canine SAR. The relevant part:

The K9 Alert team is now 15 dogs strong and includes handlers and volunteers who specialize in a wide variety of essential SAR categories such as wilderness search and survival, collapsed structure search, swift water safety, confined space safety, human remains detection/cadaver recoveries and emergency first aid for humans and k9s. In addition to an extremely demanding call-out schedule, partially governed by requests for service through the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, the members are required to train weekly in their specialized areas.

Weekly trainings mean that on average, each of the fifteen handlers plus their support staff drive fifty miles round trip to a training (at conservative estimate) every week. We'll call that twenty people, for a total of a thousand miles, fifty weeks a year. Usually they're driving pickup trucks, SUVs, and minivans to tote equipment and a biggish dog.

In general, the creed of the SAR dog handler is "If we save one person, it's all worth it." I started wondering, though, how much particulate matter the 50,000 miles added to the air. There's a correlation between auto pollutants and the death rate of asthmatics. Is creating a large-area SAR team killing more people than it saves?

The alternate plan is for every county to have at least one dog that the county officials in charge of SAR can call on immediately. Why is that a problem? County rescue squads don't generally want to be responsible for helping to train a dog, and a large part of the work in training a SAR dog is in procuring and training the decoys. Not every county has someone with the drive to be a handler, or the money for it.

However, we seem to be coming to a crisis point in gas costs, and counties may have to rethink their approach to SAR. A well-trained dog is an incredibly valuable tool, greatly increasing the chances of finding the victim quickly. States may have to consider standardizing the SAR dog's standards if they have not already as more members of large-area teams look into joining local rescue squads instead. As large-area or statewide canine teams disband, some counties are going to find themselves without nearby scentwork resources, and they may have to devote some of their budget to getting a squad member or two trained before they can have a canine of their own.

The other change would be in the dog training itself. Currently, it's not uncommon for a canine squad to allow specialization: a few track/trail dogs, a few air-scent dogs, a cadaver dog or several, perhaps a disaster-response dog. Callouts take into consideration what each dog is trained for, and so only water-cadaver-trained dogs are called to a drowning. It is possible to train a single dog to do most of those jobs in a reasonable amount of time -- think of police dogs who are expected to do some trailing, intelligent bitework, obedience, and drug detection, and are expected to be effective and reliable on the last after six weeks of intensive training. If a SAR-intended puppy is taught to track and air-scent first, with a side order of basic agility and crowd-friendly obedience, and is then introduced to trail scent, cadaver scent, and the idea that people may be buried under objects, she will be competent to face most of the likely scenarios for a county team, and she'll be ready to deploy by the time she's two years old, possibly sooner. Air scent will give her the abilities and concepts needed for cadaver and/or disaster search; air scent combined with tracking will provide the concepts needed to decipher a trail up to several days old.

If states were willing to fund regional trainings quarterly and statewide trainings and tests annually, this might be feasible. Of course, the counties would also have to get behind it. Emergency response setups vary from state to state; some are largely volunteer organizations, some depend on the fire or police organizations to do first response as well.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Show and Working Bloodlines

Quite a few breeds have a show-work dichotomy. Within that, most breeders will still set aside some puppies as being for the purpose they’re bred for and others as pets In general, if someone just wants a pet to hang out with, they’re best off getting a show-line pet-quality pup. If they’re looking for a dog to jog alongside the mountain bike or hike the Appalachian Trail, then a working-line pet pup might suit better.

There are exceptions. I have nice drivey Dustin from show lines, and he’s picked up the odd ribbon in the show ring. When I have money, which is not presently, he works sheep and does it very well. He did some puppy pre-bitework on a sack, and did it well also. I didn’t do as much with him in his puppyhood as I ought to have, as that was when Sunny was succumbing to cancer, and she died a few days after I learned (from Dustin first) that I was pregnant.

Pregnancy made me tired, so Dustin was worked in some of my rare bursts of energy. He was patient about it, though eager for the baby.

Then, of course, I was buried in a baby. Again, tracking and obedience in short bursts, agility and sheep not at all. He’s had a lot of ball games to wear off some energy, but that hasn’t given him much to think about beyond the odd lost toy to hunt.

One of our better ways to lose a toy for him to find is for me to throw it over or onto the workshop roof, depending on whether the toy is a ball or a stick. From the back of the house, the roof’s edge is about four feet off the ground; from the other, about the usual seven or so, and there’s another terrace just beyond the far side of the building.

Today was a ball day. You see what’s coming, no? He landed in leaves and soft dirt as indicated below.

Show-line dogs aren’t supposed to have that kind of drive. But apparently going around the building grew dull. He’s fine. He played merry hell with my attempt to get him to take it easy after that, and the photo up top has a dog in it entirely because he wanted to see what was so interesting in the frame of the picture. It looks like “Clear brush and install agility challenges” needs to work its way up my to-do list a bit more.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Scentwork for Show Dogs: Stage 2

Two posts ago, I talked about training your dog to associate an open crate door with the idea of going straight to you. Once he has been taught that basic concept, it's time to start the real work: developing his skills.

So far, he's been working in simple settings. He comes to you across grass and in a famliar and low-distraction building. Now you step it up a little at a time. You cross a sidewalk, a driveway, or a ditch. Once he's mastered each, you go along a hedge and duck behind the end. Have a partner put a crosstrail across your intended path before you run it. Later, have that partner do it afterward. Add one scent article, surface, or other new element at a time, and hammer at that one until your dog knows how to get past it -- which may take one try or ten.

Indoors, stop ducking around doorways and start ducking into closets with the door pulled to, and then totally closed. Let him find you in the bathroom, in the basement, in the car in the garage, wherever your house and grounds permit.

When he gets good at using his nose and solving problems, and he's really focused on the game, you can get together with a few kennel-club buddies for Stage 3.

Marble Cake Revisited

A few posts ago, I wrote about using marble cake for giving yourself a visual parallel for how scent can be drawn by a passing vehicle or deer, especially in tall grass or on a still day. It would have been a much better post with a picture, but at the time I didn't have one.

Here you go. The original "scent" was laid in an S shape, which was then cut perpendicularly a number of times. When your dog seems to be going off on a crosstrail, she may be making a perfectly honest assessment of what the core scent is really doing!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Scentwork for Show Dogs: Stage 1

In my last post I talked about the need for training to keep a show dog (this includes obedience dogs!) safe in a world where not everyone is sympathetic to crating practices. Whether the person releasing the catch is an animal-rights activist or a child looking for a playmate doesn't matter to the health and well-being of your dog! Today we look at the first stage in training your dog to find the person most likely to be at every one of his shows. I will assume it is my reader, and simply say "You."

First, you need a good recall on your dog -- not a formal front sit, but the ability to bring him to you without too much stress about distractions. Since a conformation dog is usually trained to work for food treats already, he'll learn to trot to you for "Here!" and a goodie pretty quickly. If he then glues himself to you instead of wandering off to let you call him again, fling another treat with a "Find it!" or "Get it!" command. After a few days, you can start the next stage.

Hopefully your dog already has a "Wait!" at his crate door. If not, it may be worth establishing one, even if it means rapping his nose with the door a couple of times. For one thing, it makes your life much easier if you can collar him as he stands nicely inside instead of lassoing him as he bolts past you. If you have a good wait, also, it's much easier to practice the find-you game alone at least part of the time.

Here goes -- either on a wait command or with the crate door closed and a helper on alert, go about ten feet from the crate and duck partway behind some object. Call the dog when you are partway visible, so that you can see if he's wandering utterly elsewhere and wave food as needed. Tree trunks are fine, doors are fine, but work in a familiar place with few distractions at first. Do some of your training outdoors on plain mowed grass, and some in your house or, if you have access to one, an empty training room.

On your outdoor trainings, work with an awareness of the wind. Sometimes you should be upwind, some downwind, some crosswind. When your dog is reliably coming to you, go entirely behind the obstacle before you call, and have the dog wait longer. Experiment with having a helper release the dog and no recall. This way, you learn if he pops out or stays in. Gradually increase distance and hide time. Different breeds will show different innate preferences for searching out their human: most scent hounds will drop their noses to the ground, while many herding and sporting breeds will quarter with their heads high, seeking air scent. Since a dog has different dominant senses from a human, you will probably see a transition from using sight to using scent early in the training.

If you cannot get the dog to seek you out at all without calling him, and he instead stays nicely in his crate, congratulations! Practice in more interesting places until you're sure he'll stick even at the commotion of a show, and skip my next two posts.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Scentwork for Show Dogs: Why

Recently I received yet another alert that suspected animal-rights advocates had been coming to dog shows and letting the dogs out of their crates. Apparently some people believe that the dogs should have the right to run loose, eat dangerous stuff off the ground, and get hit by cars instead of being shown. Alternately, they just might believe that drinking spilled antifreeze or getting hit by a car is somehow a better fate than being shown and perhaps one day reproducing. I'm delighted that this warning is circulating to the conformation/obedience world, but there's more that we could be doing than just plain "Look out!"

There are several things you can teach your dog to keep him safer at a show. One is to only come out of his crate for a specific (and unusual) command. Another would be a similar password system -- he can come out only if you have touched the sleeve of the person reaching in for him. A third, if your dog tends to fly out of his crate as though fired from a gun and then look around to see if there's any reason he shouldn't have, is to train him to come find his handler. Since that's more up my alley in the training department, my next three posts will be offering three stages of training for show dogs who would like to do some scentwork and have some aptitude for it, but who will not be seeking tracking titles.

I dream of a world where a person longer on enthusiasm than sense can go along a row of crates opening each and look back to discover that most of the dogs are sitting and looking at them funny while one or two have gone off to tattle on them.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Unequal Partnership, Canines, and

White Collar on USA.I admit it. It’s an addiction.

This past episode, though, was also food for thought as a dog person. I’ve had a canine partner – not just a pet, or a buddy, though she was both, but an actual working partner. The sort of dog who’d consider working with someone else, maybe, if she really liked and respected that person. The sort of dog where I’d have to really like and respect that other person to be comfortable handing over the leash for even a minute.

What does that have to do with a USA show where the Golden Retriever is used only as a family prop, and not even a bearer of listening devices? Well…

In this last episode, Neal the con artist and FBI consultant, out of jail on a sort of work release program, is handed over to a different agent instead of his usual Peter. Peter has caught him twice, and their relationship has its antagonistic moments, but neither much likes the idea. The new agent chooses not to make use of Neal’s talents, sending him to the car when he tries to make himself useful and not terribly happy when Neal manages to learn something regardless. Peter, for his part, is anxious over handing over his partner in a way most people wouldn’t be over a fellow adult human.

On the other hand, it’s exactly like the anxiety when a handler has to let someone else mess with his dog.

Peter and Neal aren’t equals. Peter can put Neal back in jail at any time, and generally reminds him of this once per episode. Neal wears a collar for all practical purposes, an ankle-bracelet tracker which he slips when personal interest and the plot require it (“I came back,” he points out when returning for it.) He works rather better for Peter, who takes an interest in what he has to say and respects that he can sniff out information not available to the average or even the extraordinary FBI employee, than for the new handler.

And “handler” it is. USA has created a show with a great deal of relevance to dog trainers without having a star who sheds, drools (in this case, the fandom does the drooling) or has a sudden lapse on the English language. A good intelligent dog has a lot in common with Neal: he’ll sniff out all sorts of interesting things, and if the leash is too loose and the motivations for hanging around are insufficient, he’ll be off to pursue his own agenda for a bit. If he likes you well enough, or fears the consequences of solitude enough, he’ll be back. He’ll settle in on your couch and cozy up to your spouse without meaning too dreadfully much by it. He’d prefer high-quality accommodations to basic kenneling, and given half a chance he’ll improve them himself if you don’t. (“Off the bed!” “Yeah, right. You want me to work all day after sleeping in that drafty box?” Count yourself lucky if your search dog doesn’t try to insist on Italian roast.) He prefers also to know what’s going on before offering his input, just to be sure you and he are on the same page, and he may give you a good heap of irrelevance if the mood strikes him. After all, what’s your training buddy getting lost again compared to the tantalizing aroma of dead deer?

And yet, if you manage things right and don’t screw up too often, and you can loosen your preconceived notions of your dog as servant or captive, you have an excellent partner. “The smart one is on that end of the leash,” I’d sometimes say, and mean it, and the smart one seemed to get that she was being complimented. Most of the time she respected me enough to take it as such. She also seemed at times to arch her eyebrows with a look that suggested, You don’t know the half of it.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tracking in Snow

"Don't they cheat and learn to track by sight?"

We finally had snow this weekend, so Dustin and Bruce each had two snow tracks before everything melted. That certainly isn't enough to teach them to track by sight, but I certainly learned a lot by watching them. Dustin worked well, and I saw him have an "Aha" moment at the turns when he could see what was happening. The second day, his turns were obscured by holes in the snow where clots had fallen from the tree branches -- footprints everywhere! He kept his nose low and checked each likely hollow, and even got the metal article he'd missed the day before.

With Bruce, the snow helped me put on the brakes as we reached an article. I need to cut up my elderly hot-pink sweatshirt for working him; I can see those easily and the dog can't. This is good for a hot tracker who's lukewarm on finding anything. He's maturing, but is still a bit of a scatterbrain. I'm wondering if he'd take to field-trial training and whether I could ILP him as a mysteriousy small Labrador.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Compulsive behavior

We own a tail-chasing dog.

Tasha spins on certain occasions, such as when her preferred person comes home and is mobbed by all and sundry instead of focusing exclusively on her. She spins when she wants her dinner prepared. She spins when she wishes to leave her boarding kennel, which leads to injuries when she's there for more than a couple of days.

However, the dinner preparation starts to look like a cargo cult. She sees me pick up the food dishes, goes into a back room, and spins like the washing machine on the wringer cycle. There is soon food; therefore the ritual has worked.

The past few meals, we've made her come and lie in the kitchen while we scoop kibble and dole out supplements. Her obedience is good enough for down-stay to be effective. I'm hoping her basic intelligence, which generally seems pretty good, will eventually twig to the idea that the food is made even when she is not wearing holes in the rug and her pads.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tracking After Hiatus

After actual months between tracking sessions, I finally got up, settled the baby in the stroller with the brakes locked so he could watch from above while we worked, and worked a couple of tracks. With luck, it'll happen again tomorrow. We'll be fair-weather trackers for some time, though. While I can find baby clothes to keep a little one warm, I cannot find any to keep him dry.

Each of the two boys had an eighty-pace track with nine articles including the starter. Each started on a leather article. Each had two leather, two paper, two plastic, two cloth, and one metal article. And there the resemblance ended...

Bruce is an excellent natural tracker, with a nice low nose. He was delighted to take a scent by a post and work down the line, and delighted to get treats for doing it, but couldn't for the life of him remember the down-on-article part. By the last article, though, he was beginning to stop and stare thoughtfully into space. A few more days like this, and he'll probably get the idea.

Dustin is a natural air-scent and trailing dog, with a high nose but excellent skills on mixed surfaces. He remembered the down on articles just fine. He had a big lapse on remembering the line of scent down at dead-grass level, or perhaps just doesn't find it as interesting as sorting out the entire neighborhood blowing on the breeze. As he's more experienced than Bruce, though, and also considerably smarter, he had it figured out again by the end of the line.

I'm not going to get ahead of myself, or them, though. For one thing, short tracks are much easier when also keeping track of the infant. For another, if I jump ahead too suddenly, I'll just frustrate everyone involved, including the little boy who insists on kicking off his blanket and then complaining that he's cold (and who hates his snowsuit.) When he's a little older, he should be able to ride in a backpack while I work the dogs, which won't show him much of what we're doing but at least will let him see where we've been.