Friday, June 24, 2005

Baby Tracking

I was recently asked to teach some baby tracking to a few and since then asked to do a post on beginning tracking, and while I readily acknowledge that I am not a tracking expert, I can tell you how I'm teaching baby tracks now.

Note that I am teaching footstep tracking, in which the dog is expected to point out each step the human took. SAR dogs generally trail rather than track, meaning they follow the scent to its source and may take a completely different route than the original track, either shortcutting or following where the scent drifted downwind. AKC tracking, with its generous allowance of ranging widely off the track, is more accurately trailing.

First, I don't use the yard which we trample daily. The scent there is just too hot to expect a novice dog to distinguish. I use fields of relatively short grass, or I'd use soft dirt if I had that available (but my crop fields are all chemically treated by the farmer who rents them, so we don't use those). Big grassy fields, large little-used lawns, etc., are all options. Check out parks or local businesses (I got permission to track at a local car lot with a large front lawn that's purely for show).

It's probably best to start with a puppy square, which is essentially a 3'x3' area (larger for bigger dogs) pounded flat and seeded liberally with kibble or tiny treats. I use kibble in tracking, while most of the people I know use hot dogs or equivalent. I'm not personally comfortable with hot dogs as a food item :-) and also I want the dog to be following something less stinky than hot dogs. As long as she's motivated by the food, it'll work.

Stick a flag (like those the gas company marks lines with) at the bottom left corner of the square, stomp it all flat, let it age about ten or fifteen minutes and then let the dog work in it to find the good stuff. The lesson here is, put your nose down when you see a flag, and follow the scents of human/disturbed earth/crushed vegetation. See Armin Winkler's article for more.

Next, I'll start laying short baby tracks, maybe 10-20 steps. Flag at the start (get your nose down!) and a kibble in each step. I like to put a big pile of kibble at the end, but I'm ending that for Laev, who doesn't need any more encouragement to hurry. I'm about six inches from the dog, pointing to the track to start and praising quietly as she works, helping if necessary but generally trying to stay out of the way. If she gets off the track, I'll give her a couple seconds to put herself back on, as I don't want to teach helplessness; no more, though, because I don't want her to get distracted and reinforced by something else.

Corners and curves are introduced carefully, with me making sure that the dog won't be confused by blowing crosswinds. I do both directions (some dogs are naturally better at one than another), both obtuse and acute. I bait every step at a turn and then, later, I'll move the food to after the turn to reward an accurate track.

The most important thing is, I always have to know where the track is. I can't let the dog get off the track and be reinforced elsewhere or feel she's failed and doesn't know what to do. I have to be able to find the track no matter what. This is where the judicious use of flags, natural markers, sight lines, etc. all help!

Gradually I'll lengthen the tracks, fade the food, age the tracks longer, etc. It was suggested to me that if I use one piece of food in a footstep, I should use at least three in sequential steps, to keep the dog from developing the habit of finding one piece and then skipping ahead instead of continuing to check each step. Eventually I'll work myself back to the end of a 33' tracking line, but that's a long way away!

Okay, that may be the shortest tracking dissertation ever, but as I said, I don't consider myself good enough to teach, and there's a lot of better information online. Shakespeare's a pretty lousy tracker, but that's entirely my fault -- I started teaching trailing instead of footstep tracking, for use in a different venue, and then I was very inconsistent with practice while I tried to work out priorities. Consequently I have a lot of training band-aids to apply and fixes to accomplish. I've been much better with Laev, and I hope to continue in that vein!

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Vacation! Humiliation?

There will be no puppy training this week, as I'm on vacation. :-) Laev is comfortably established in a roomy kennel with a trusted petsitter caring for her and giving her zoomie times, with friends watching the place closely, and I don't anticipate any problems except massive boredom and frustration at not being able to open up the throttle as often.

I, on the other hand, am going to need to open up the throttle a little more often, after eating as we have been! See my sister's travel blog for more info. Amazing food here in Seattle!

The trip has been really enjoyable thus far, except for meeting a vacationing Japanese couple. We ended up speaking with them and they asked us to speak in Japanese, as their English was poor. Well, their English was certainly no worse than my Japanese!

"Please speak Japanese," the husband said. Alena and I froze up. I have never seen Alena freeze like that before, and I can say with some certainty that I don't think I ever have, either. Total idiocy.

"Nihongo ga zenzen wakarimasen," I managed. I do not understand any Japanese. That, at least, broke the ice, and we were able to move on from there. Roughly. I missed a lot -- an awful lot -- but I think we talked about dog training, the high cost of living in Tokyo, whether or not I've ever been bitten (we tried to discuss how I was bitten in the face and needed surgery, but vocabulary failed), and the fact that our Japanese was insufficient yet to go to Japan for one of Terry Ryan's seminars. The nadir was the point at which I used omae for a second-person address.

Let me explain that. Modern English has only one form of second-person address, "you." Most European languages still have two, a polite/formal address and an informal/friendly/condescending form. Japanese has, well, several forms. Omae is not the one I should have used for a just-introduced elderly lady. I was hastily corrected to anata. I bowed and gomen'd until I was red, but it's hard to overcome that sort of mistake.

My fault entirely. I could think of everything I wanted in Spanish, but nothing at all in Japanese. This was my first attempt at having a conversation with a native, and I just had no vocabulary at all. Of course, once we'd finished our 45-minute (one-sided) conversation and I was no longer facing them, my brain kicked back in and I could think of a lot of words I simply hadn't known a half-hour before.

A lesson to myself as a trainer -- stress does affect behavior and recall!

For the rest of the story, including a delightful bookstore, my new favorite restaurant with a killer commute, a chat with an itinerant poet hawking books, the glorious transcontinental train trip, etc., see Alena's blog as mentioned above.

Today's dog story.... I was approached by a fish-seller today who'd seen my agility shirt. He started telling me I couldn't run his dog in agility, because she was very hyper and stubborn and 3/4 wolf. Hm. Yeeee-ah. I could have told him about clicker training used with wolves, and anyway I sincerely doubted he had a 3/4 wolf (I've seen a lot of "wolfdogs," and I think maybe one of them had a wolf somewhere in the family tree, and at any rate I don't tend to think of wolves as "hyper" unless they're frantic -- which, of course, his might have been), and he was standing at a personal distance which might have been borderline acceptable in a Latin culture but was way, way too close for typical North American interactions, and so I just made a sympathetic comment about how wolves weren't designed to work well as human pets and oh, where had my husband gone?

I don't go for "I'm-so-macho-you-can't-touch-my-dog" pick-up lines.

Today's musical tracks are courtesy of "Record of Journey To The West," a techno-musical retelling of the Saiyuki legend. In Chinese. With occasional sound effects. Really, it's most suitable for our old aerobic kick-boxing routines, so Alena and I were experimenting this morning and plan to use it throughout the trip to try and combat the excess 4,000 calories a day we're taking in. ;-)

Thursday, June 16, 2005

heckuva crosstrack

I went out to lay a track this morning, about the same time that Roger brought the earthmoving equipment to fill in an old discovered septic tank and do some grading in the field. I thought I'd left adequate room, but the dozer went right by our track. Of course, Laev is tracking the scents of disturbed earth and crushed vegetation as well as human scents...! So she was very interested in finding what had made such a huge track!

She was a little distracted on the track itself. I started with a puppy tracking square, just 3x3' of tamped grass and kibble, and she kept looking outside the square for the track. She self-corrected each time, going back into the square, so she got to keep working -- I would not have allowed her to finish and reward herself if she couldn't stay in the square -- but she really, really wanted to be following a track.

Then we moved to the track, which had her morning cup of kibble on it. I think she ate maybe five kibbles in all. I am "tapping" her back, keeping her slow and on the track with little half-halts (how on earth would I train without an equestrian background?), but she's just not really interested in eating while she's tracking. Maybe I should up the food value again, but I don't want to start relying on hot dogs, etc., on the track.

Track had two 45-degree angles, two ninety-degree turns, and went through some pricklies. She wasn't really on task during the prickly part, but I think it was more the change in vegetation type -- no grass, just weeds -- rather than any discomfort. She was pretty excited to find where the grass started again and got back to work.

Our only real trouble spot was near the end; I ended near a fenceline and the gate had been moved to make room for the dozer, so I had to pass pretty near my final leg in order to get out. As luck would have it, the west crosswind was blowing toward that escape route and Laev wanted to drift toward it a little and then, catching its scent, wanted to take that instead. I kept her on task, though, and she finished well.

Then she got to track the BIG dozer track all the way to the septic tank work site, where she met a worker and watched the pumping preparatory to filling. Good girl.

Monday, June 13, 2005

of tarps and teeters

ye gads, has it really been a week without tracking? Wow, I've been bad.

I've been giving Laev less training time, since her teeth hurt and she's easily distracted, but then I feel guilty about spending less time with her overall. It's now far too hot to take her on car trips where she can't go inside with me, and there are fewer places that will allow a 4-month Doberman inside than a 9-week little blob that's too cute and small to present a problem.

Plus, I'm going on vacation next week, and that means she'll be spending almost all of her time in the 13x7.5' kennel run. It's well-fitted -- it has an 80% shade cover, a very nice doghouse with cedar shavings, etc. -- but it's hardly stimulating. I feel guilty already.

Shakespeare is perking up considerably, which makes me happy. I don't know if he's adapting to the heat or is just revitalized by playing in the pond refilled by our tornadic storm.

We went to an agility fun night with some friends, and Laev had a blast running through the tunnel and chute. She's also absurdly comfortable on the teeter -- she'll jump up and land on top of the high end, which isn't necessarily something I want her to be doing at this age, but at least she's not afraid of it! No jumps of course, as she's far too young. Likewise I'm trying to stay away from the A-frame and dogwalk.

Speaking of NOT AFRAID.... Jon and I have a giant tarp, large enough to cover our entire house while it was under construction this winter, and I wanted it under control. So we were trying to fold it this weekend while Laev was in the yard playing. It was harder to fold than one might think, because it is 100' or so long and because Laev was busy having puppy zoomies all over the tarp! It didn't matter if we were holding the tarp four feet off the ground trying to fold it, she'd run right over it and smash the tarp and herself to the ground, landing at a gallop and having a blast.

Jon looked at me across the sea of muddy pawprinted-tarp. "Well, you got what you wanted," he said. "I'm not sure why you wanted it, but you got it!"

I still worry about fireworks and similar noises, but I have to say that Laev has not shown any sound sensitivity since that time.... Here's hoping....

Why is it that I think all day of things to record in the blog, and then when I finally get to a place with internet access (yes, I'm still without access at home), I cannot remember the good stuff?

I need to go tracking.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Shakespeare, again

Just a follow-up to my previous post: I am fairly convinced that it was just the heat which was bothering Shakespeare, and not some dire creeping death. He perked up considerably when a cold front came through ("cold front" being relative, of course!) and is now happy to run around and patrol at night instead of during the day. So I hope he continues well!

He did, however, gain some weight, so now I'm trying to get that off him.... It just never ends, does it?


I was reviewing in my mind today things Laev has seen or experienced, and I thought of some highlights:

  • escalators

  • motorcycles (seen, not ridden)

  • wadded tarps that drop her into unexpected puddles

  • agility teeter

  • agility chute

  • wading pool

  • all types of footing: rubber mats, grass, gravel, pavement, wire mesh, wooden boards, etc.

  • sidewalk cafes

  • crowds

I haven't shown her an elevator yet, nor has she done any tugging on linen bitesuit material or leather toys. I should probably address the latter.

Still, she's darn experienced for a puppy. And I'm proud of the way she takes just about everything in stride.

She is developing a strong jump which, as someone pointed out tonight, might well bloody a lip or nose in an unsuspecting greeter. I hadn't really thought about it because I never bend over her, so it wasn't an issue for me. I don't want to inhibit her jumping this early -- I'll do that later, after she's confident working on strange helpers -- so I guess I'll just have to be more vigilant.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005


Ah, teething. The age of complete and total brain fade.

She's still bright and enthusiastic, but she can't focus on me for more than a couple of seconds. Nor can we play tug now, so that limits our playtime, as she can already more than outrun me. Obedience is still fun, but she has trouble keeping her mind on things. Of course we're not doing anything involving duration! but she can't even look at me between one treat and the next. Silly puppy.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Race Day!

Indianapolis has 12 months, just like most places, but they're known here as January, February, Mud, April, Welcome Race Fans.... I'm not a race fan myself, but every year I attend a cousin's traditional Race Day Party. This year I took Laev, for socialization.

It was great, great socialization. Close to 100 people, but lots and lots of space (many acres) to get away if necessary. Laev got to see friendly people, indifferent people, drunk people, happy people, people playing volleyball, people with other friendly dogs, a big pond to drink from, a big field to play chase and recalls in, and a volleyball to pounce on. Much fun. She was very well-behaved, offering sits and downs whenever she saw a plate of food instead of jumping up, and took nearly everything in stride. She was clearly having a wonderful time for hours.

The only trouble came at night, when it was announced that we had fireworks. Fireworks! Not little firecrackers, but real, professional-like fireworks that hurt the ears and turned the black sky red. There was nowhere to escape to and little warning, so I simply snatched a leftover brat and treated Laev at each boom. She didn't seem to care. Then I started having her do sits, downs and palm touches for the brat bits, and she still carried on like a trooper. She didn't even flick an ear when the fireworks burst overhead. It was only after about ten minutes that she started hesitating a bit before responding.

Crud, I thought. It's starting to affect her.

My sister fetched more bratwurst for me, but we were losing her. Yeah, she'd been fine, but it was just going on too long. She wasn't getting a chance to relax or bounce back. When she started looking genuinely worried, trying to move away from the booming, I took off running with her. We ran down the drive, me letting her get about 20 feet ahead of me and then calling her back for brat, and then continuing in the same fashion. I found a stand of trees that deadened the noise somewhat and tried playing with her there. My husband and sister joined me, good helpers that they are, to try and distract the puppy. Jon fortunately had our tug toy in his pocket, and I devised an emergency plan.

"This dog is genetically engineered to vent stress through her mouth," I said. "Tug with her, letting her win at the moment something booms. Immediately somebody else grab the toy and restart the game, so she doesn't have time to think about what she's hearing."

This worked. We had a few rough moments where we missed grabbing the toy in the dark, or when Laev, stressed and in the dark and not aiming clearly, grabbed skin instead of toy, but I was more than willing to look like a heroine addict in exchange for helping my puppy weather this unexpected storm. By the time the fireworks ended, we were all exhausted, human and canine, but the puppy was not showing any ill effects.

My sister Alena was called inside to help settle another dog, one whose heart rate was dangerously high and who wouldn't come out of his hiding place, tramatized by the sounds. I was very happy we'd come out as well as we had. I will test later to see if Laev carries ill effects related to loud noises, but not for a long while, to give her maximum recovery. At least she had a good bounce-back at the time.

I don't know the moral of this story -- it would have been silly of me to forego such wonderful socialization and training opportunities as this presented, and indeed with the exception of that half hour Laev enjoyed the entire thing, but I would not have knowingly exposed her to the fireworks at this age. I guess the moral is, keep a tug toy handy. ;-)

By the way, I was counting on Laev needing to sleep the next day after over six hours of party and the fright of the fireworks. Indeed, she slept an hour late the next morning, and she did move just a tad slower when running up the stairs the next day. That was it. She didn't even take her afternoon nap on time. Sheesh! What's it take to wear out this dog?

this is classical conditioning -- for me, not Laev

Okay, I'm getting twitchy.

June 2002 - While we're away for the weekend, Dante does not eat his dinner one night. The petsitter does not know him well enough to know that anything other than diving into his food bowel constitutes a full emergency for Dante. We return home and, hearing this, take him to the vet, but he dies before surgery for an intestinal blockage. Autopsy reveals that his intestines were completely necrotic; the blockage was old and his notorious imperviousness to all discomfort had hidden it from us until he was dying anyway.

first week of July, 2003 -- Chaucer has a few accidents indoors the week we move to a new house; I'm not worried, figuring it's stress. She is losing weight, too, so I take her in. The vet thinks it's a bladder infection and we treat with antibiotics. That doesn't seem to help, so back we go. She catches a rabbit on Monday, is diagnosed with diabetic ketoacidosis on Tuesday, and is dead on Saturday.

June, 2004 -- While Tempest has made amazing progress in her aggression issues, her first instinctive reaction when startled is and will always be to bite. For the safety of humans and Tempest herself, I make the painful decision to euthanize.

Now it is June 2005. I am not generally superstitious in any way, but these events hurt. Now Shakespeare is suddenly lethargic, wanting only to sleep on his bed all day instead of running the fenceline for hours on end. I hope it is only the heat coming on and not anything more. I'll keep my eye on him for other symptoms.

Gah, it feels stupid to confess worry on the basis of timing alone.