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.