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!