Rebecca Ross is a wildlife biologist, wildlife rehabilitator, dog trainer and zoo manager based in Brenham, Tex. She shares her life with four-year-old daughter Camryn, four dogs, four rabbits, twenty-something chickens and a husband who can usually be somewhere in the skies over southern Africa. Rebecca writes a monthly blog for The Bark about training her first conservation dog, Ranger.
News: Guest Posts
A New Dog-in-training Joins Up
December 5 2012
October and November have been the most exciting months of 2012 for Dogs for Conservation. More than a year of hard work and patience have paid off and we now have some tangible things to show for it!
In October 2012 we had the wonderful opportunity to both save a life and acquire another great detection dog! Formerly known as Allie, now named "Terra" (as in "Terra Firma"), this female Border Collie was found as a stray and was looking at her last days before being euthanized at a Texas shelter. That was when Ruff Mutts Border Collie Rescue saved her life and realized she had potential to be a working dog! Debbie Schwagerman, Director of Ruff Mutts, wrote:
“Allie actually came from the Wichita Falls animal shelter. She was picked up as a stray and no one claimed her. In fact, even after she was available for adoption, no one adopted her and no other rescue stepped up for her. I agreed to take her at the last minute, and she was transported out to me in Terrell. I knew from the minute I met her she was born to DO something.”
Terra was then evaluated and temporarily fostered by Bob and Karen Deeds of Canine Connection in Fort Worth, TX where she was deemed a wonderful prospect for detection work!
Soon after that, we at Dogs for Conservation contacted Bob Deeds about any dogs he knew of that might work out for our program … and the rest is history!! Terra is currently being trained by our head trainer Tiffanie Turner to detect the highly endangered Houston Toad! Terra is the sweetest girl who gives the best doggy hugs I have ever seen!! She is crazy about her ball, and that has been the key to teaching her how to "learn to earn” … she did not even know how to sit when we got her!
While Terra sniffs out toads, Ranger has stepped up his training a notch and has finally been introduced to a target odor. Many months of preparation and fun have led up to this time, and so for Ranger it is just another game! He has been learning how to use his nose properly and efficiently, learning how scent behaves in different terrain and weather, and of course his obedience training continues every day as well. All of these are pieces to the puzzle that will ultimately have our “puppy” working well in the real world in 2013. It amazes me daily how much he enjoys what he is doing… I am so proud of him!
Until next time, feel free to visit us on our website or on our Facebook page for regular updates on Ranger and Terra’s progress!!
News: Guest Posts
November 4 2012
Being able to travel to amazing and interesting places is a real blessing in my life that I am grateful for every single day. I recently returned from a month in southern Africa… for me it was like returning home since I lived in South Africa for five years. My husband, Mike, is South African, and he works there most of the year, so my four year old daughter and I usually go at least once a year to see him and to see other family and friends.
This particular trip was not only to visit family though, I ended up spending about ten days visiting with other people and organizations who use “Conservation K9’s” for wildlife conservation. Wildlife is one of the greatest natural resources that Africa has, and tourism is a real economic boost as well as a good reason to protect the incredible diversity found there.
Take the cheetah, for example. Who doesn’t love cheetahs! They are gorgeous, athletic, and alluring creatures! But they are also in great danger. I was lucky enough to spend a week at the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in Namibia, where I was able to spend time with cheetahs and the dogs that are helping them. The mission of CCF is stated as:
“To be the internationally recognized centre of excellence in the conservation of cheetahs and their ecosystems. CCF will work with all stakeholders to develop best practices in research, education, and land use to benefit all species, including people.”
In trying to accomplish this, CCF does many things. They rescue, raise, rehabilitate, and often release cheetahs when possible. The real importance of their work though is in trying to help local livestock farmers strike a harmonious balance with the cheetahs and other wildlife that share the habitat. One way they do this is by raising Livestock Guardian Dogs.
Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD’s), such as the Anatolian Shepherds and Kangals that CCF breeds, are a very effective way to protect livestock where there are large predators. In Namibia, farmers can suffer losses from cheetahs and other large predators that still roam wild. CCF breeds these special dogs and gives them to farmers who need them so that cheetahs will not suffer the consequences.
I spent some time with a litter of four week old LGD puppies that were surrounded by CCF’s own herd of goats. The puppies are raised with livestock, and human attention and cuddling is minimized so that the dogs bond with the livestock rather than people. Once the dogs are ready they live full time with the herds they protect, and they love their job!
While at CCF I also got to meet four other special dogs, the cheetah scat detections dogs! These four dogs and their dedicated human team members spend their days in the field looking for cheetah scat, which is then processed by CCF’s in house genetics lab where so much information can be extracted from one sample. Cheetahs suffer from some genetic problems as a result of their declining populations, and the scat can also relay which individual it came from, what sex it is, stress levels, pregnancy, diet, etc.
These dogs can be very valuable because they speed up what can be a very time consuming process looking for a “needle in a haystack”, especially since cheetahs have such huge home ranges.
I had a great time at CCF meeting the dogs and many of the cheetahs that are non-releasable. Namibia is an amazing country, and I highly recommend it as a travel destination… and of course CCF is open to visitors and is an incredible experience!!
Towards the end of my Africa trip I traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa and attended a workshop dedicated to the use of detection dogs for wildlife conservation. It was here that I had the pleasure of meeting many wonderful people and dogs. I was finally able to meet two very special people in person that I had only conversed with via emails.
Rox Brummer from Green Dogs Conservation was a key participant in the workshop and had so much to share with all of us. Rox and her team are based in South Africa, and have done so much already with dogs including cheetah scat and kill detection as well as a bird control dog for an international airport in South Africa.
The other key speaker at the workshop was Megan Parker from Working Dogs for Conservation, based in Montana. Megan and her team have done much of the pioneering work using dogs for wildlife work. Their past projects span many continents and countries, and she had so much experience and wisdom to share with the group. I also got to meet one of Megan’s dogs, Pepin, a very handsome Belgian Malinois that has been trained to detect many different things in his working career.
This workshop proved an invaluable use of my time, as it was a very unique opportunity to pick the brains of several people who are the most knowledgeable and experienced in this unique field. I thank them all immensely for their time and dedication.
My trip was a success, both personally and professionally. Best of all I came home to happy and healthy dogs who had been so well cared for in my absence. There is no replacement for a great dog-sitter, and I have the best! Ranger was thrilled to see me again and ready to get to work. He is showing so much potential these days… I can’t wait for you to see him next month!
News: Guest Posts
September 2 2012
It sure is HOT in Texas right now, and it’s not helping that Conservation Puppy-in-Training Ranger is on FIRE!! My little boy is growing up, and his potential is also growing in leaps and bounds. It is very important that our dogs are acclimated to the heat and humidity here in Texas, as it will be very useful later on when they are working in the field and make them less susceptible to heat related problems.
We take a lot of precautions to make sure our dogs are never at risk for heatstroke. Working during the heat of the day is nearly impossible for any length of time, so training right now is limited to mornings and evenings. Water is available at al times of course and here on the farm where Ranger is growing up there are several ponds that he is able to cool off in. We also started using these fantastic Swamp Coolers that Backcountry K9 generously donated to us (along with some life jackets!) which are nice to have on hand if necessary. The risks are very real for both people and animals, and all pet owners need to be extra careful right now.
Older animals do not tolerate the heat like their younger counterparts do, and in my household our oldest canine friend started going downhill these last few months. If you remember my very first blog, we lost one of our old Pointers, Kammo, in April, which left us with Purdy the geriatric Pointer-mix, Riley the Golden Retriever, Tank the Frenchie and of course, Ranger. Well, after saying for many years that Purdy was like the Energizer Bunny, she finally started to show her 15 years of age. She also developed a heart condition in the last month, and despite every effort to medicate, feed, and spoil, it was time for us to say goodbye to our Matriarch.
Many of you will sympathize with me and have had to say goodbye to a beloved animal or person. We knew we had only days left with Miss Purdy, and we tried to keep her comfortable and I took her on as many walks as her frail body could take. She always loved walking and swimming in the ponds, but more recently she started having problems swimming and had nearly drowned several times. By now she was content to just lie by the waters edge, her eyes having lost much of the sparkle they always had.
On Saturday morning we woke up and realized it was time to help Purdy cross the Rainbow Bridge. My husband, daughter and I all said our goodbyes, and I held her head and stroked her beautiful black fur while she fell asleep for the last time. It was probably the hardest thing I have ever had to do, but there was never any doubt that it was the right time.
Purdy was born in South Africa and spent her glory days chasing monkeys and antelope through the forests. Her ashes will be traveling with me to South Africa in September, where my husband plans to sprinkle them in the same forest she used to run in.
My trip to South Africa for the whole month of September will be full of adventures. I will be visiting the highly esteemed Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia to see their Livestock Guardian Dog Program as well as some new cheetah scat detection dogs they have just acquired! I also hope to visit with Green Dogs Conservation based in South Africa to meet their Livestock Guardian Dogs and Conservation K9’s that are being trained for so many valuable jobs related to Wildlife Conservation… plus they have PUPPIES right now.)
My next blog will be full of great photos and adventures from my Africa trip, and I cannot wait to tell you all about it. In the meantime, please take some time to “like” us and share this wonderful cause on Facebook or check out our Website… we appreciate everyone’s support so far, particularly our wonderful sponsors and donors. This was a great month for us and we got some great gear for the dogs.
EzyDog donated us some awesome harnesses that will be great for working the dogs in the field. We also had a beautiful commissioned portrait of Conservation K9 “Bea” donated to us by Melissa King from Pawblo Picasso (great name right!) that we plan on using for various fundraising efforts! You can see the painting and read Melissa’s blog HERE.
News: Guest Posts
July 19 2012
We are almost half way through Ranger’s first year or life and training to become a Conservation K9! He really did not seem to grow much the first few weeks but now he is just growing like a weed and turning into a very handsome Golden Retriever!!
Ranger’s training continues to progress. We train each weekend with the Search and Rescue team, as well as attend puppy obedience class. We trained at a couple novel locations this month, which was great to see how he reacted, and not surprisingly he did just fine. One day we had a short training session at my local UPS store here in Brenham, TX where Ranger was allowed to run around off leash, do some short sit, down, sit exercises and then I did a lot of playing with him. At one point I threw his beloved toy onto a pile of discarded cardboard boxes and he, without hesitation, clambered up to retrieve his toy. This is a really great sign at such a young age that he has potential to be a successful detection dog because it shows that he will do quite a bit to get his toy, even if it is a little scary or uncomfortable!
A week later I took Ranger to Lowe’s and he got to run up and down the lumber department, retrieved his toy off a few piles of wood and even jumped onto a very tipsy lumber cart multiple times to get his toy back… I was very pleased!!
Of course wherever we go Ranger gets to meet new people, and I am thrilled with his temperament because he is an absolute love bug with everyone he meets. I have decided that he has a definite backup career as a therapy dog one day!!
As Ranger’s training has progressed, Dogs for Conservation has also made some big strides lately. We have assembled what I like to call a “Dream Team” consisting of several amazing detection dog trainers, and thanks to one of them, Sgt. Renee Utley, we also have several fantastic dogs who are old enough and have what it takes to immediately start training for Conservation Projects. One of these new dogs is a Springer Spaniel named “Bea” who has an keen nose, absolutely loves her ball, and is starting her new career in Conservation next week as she begins training to search for one of Texas’ most endangered species!
Dogs for Conservation has teamed up with the highly esteemed Caesar Kleburg Wildlife Research Institute (CKWRI) at Texas A&M University in Kingsville, TX to start training dogs for a couple different research projects that will be very useful to biologists to survey for these endangered species they are studying. The CKWRI instantly recognized the value and potential to use dogs to assist in their various research areas, and I believe we are going to be working with them for a long time. One of these soon-to-be-announced projects is also in collaboration with one of my favorite childhood places, the Houston Zoo!
I am also happy to announce that we have had several new sponsors come on board this month including Micah Jones from Blue Giraffe Art Works who donated a commissioned portrait of a CenTex Search and Rescue dog we work with regularly during training and which proceeds from will help both organizations. We were also generously donated several great products from the Kyjen Company, whose Outward Hound product line is a perfect fit for our working dogs in the wilderness!
Check back with Dogs for Conservation next month to see how Ranger and Bea’s training is coming along! You can also join us on Facebook or on our Website to check for more regular updates!
Training (and fun!) Videos this month:
News: Guest Posts
June 15 2012
Training either a pet or a working puppy should be a full time job, and with Ranger it sure feels like it!! Ranger is now four months old. He is a fairly confident and independent puppy by nature, and I continue to bring those qualities out in him in a controlled way to avoid any overly scary or traumatic experiences. Puppies up to about a year old are very malleable, and one scary experience can be a huge setback. I take Ranger to new places all the time, and he is allowed to meet new people (with treats in hand) and new dogs who I am sure are friendly. He is also exposed to new surfaces, terrain and challenges almost daily. Rather than assist Ranger when we come to an obstacle like a cattleguard on a farm, I walk off and allow him to independently figure out how to get to me on the other side.
Obedience is also a very important for the working dog. Obviously it is imperative that our dogs have some good foundation obedience such as recalls, down, stay, etc. Ranger and I were generously donated a six week puppy class by Puppy Love Training in College Station, TX. This has been a great class that focuses on positive reinforcement and clicker training. Training outside of familiar locations, around other dogs, and under distraction is incredibly important for Ranger to learn and get used to.
Besides our obedience class, Ranger and I train almost every week with our friends at CenTex Search and Rescue based in College Station, TX. Here we have a chance to learn from some great trainers and wonderful dogs who are trained to find either live people or cadavers. Ranger is obviously not going to be learning to do either one, however he gets to learn and experience so many useful things, including traveling and waiting in his crate, getting on a boat, and of course meeting lots of new people, dogs and even a horse! He must also acclimate to the Texas heat!
During these training sessions Ranger usually gets assessed to see how he is progressing. The main team members of the Search and Rescue group are very knowledgeable when it comes to puppies, and they look at all the attributes I described previously: confidence, independence and play drive. They usually ask me to play with Ranger for a few minutes to see how excited he gets about his toys and how determined he is to get his toy. Play drive is generally a “nature” type trait that dogs are born with or not. Certain breeds, and particularly certain bloodlines, may be predisposed to have a higher play drive than others. Obviously many of the hunting/retrieving breeds are one of the first places we look for these high drive dogs, but this trait can be found in other breeds and in mutts! CenTex Search and Rescue specializes in using Border Collies for example, and some people use only shelter and rescue dogs!
Drug dogs, bomb dogs and conservation dogs all work for one reason… because they are addicted to their toys and will work all day in difficult conditions to get their reward. A dog who will retrieve his ball twenty times in a row in the backyard might not have anything close to the drive and focus we require in our dogs.
Of course, just like with puppies raised to be Guide Dogs for the Blind, there is no guarantee that Ranger will have the rare combination of confidence, independence and drive that he will need to become a successful Conservation Dog. Temperament and personality traits depend on both “nature” AND “nurture.” If you want to read an interesting article about this check out this article about the “Fox Farm” experiments in Siberia. So far the little guy is doing pretty good, and we are just trying to make everything fun for him while he learns!
Until next time, feel free to visit us on our NEW website or on our Facebook page for regular updates on our training progress!! Dogs for Conservation has some other exciting news to share with you!
Training Videos from this month:
News: Guest Posts
Ranger on a rollercoaster
May 25 2012
It has only been a month since I first blogged about Dogs for Conservation, but oh so much has happened since then! I have had incredible highs and devastating lows in this short period of time.
Of course, the main “high” has been the addition of our new Golden Retriever puppy. Ranger was donated to us by the breeder and comes from a long and impressive line of working Goldens, including search and rescue, cadaver, field trial and hunting dogs. The trip to Georgia to pick him up from Lyn Parsons was a happy occasion and the puppy has settled into my life quite nicely.
The most important job was deciding on a name for the little guy. I wanted it to mean something, and reflect the mission of Dogs for Conservation. After many weeks of research and Internet surfing, it was my husband who came up with the name Ranger. In Africa, the men and women who work on wildlife reserves are known as “game rangers.” They work very hard and often risk their lives to protect rare and endangered wildlife and habitat. The name seemed fitting as soon as I met him!
Our first week together went very well. I started some short-but-sweet training sessions with him and got him used to the flow of our household and its inhabitants. He was completely fine with my chickens, but slightly obsessed with my rabbits, so that required immediate and consistent on-leash training with lots of positive reinforcement for calm behavior, which is paying off nicely.
He also began to accompany my other dogs and me on our twice daily walks on the 35 acres we call home. This is bonding time for everyone, great exercise and wonderful environmental stimulation for a young puppy. He is exposed to different terrain—cattle guards, lakes, long grass, rocky areas, etc.—which will go a long way toward his training as a conservation dog. I also believe that being exposed to other well-balanced adult dogs really helps in how a puppy sees the world and how he is going to react to new and potentially scary things.
Five days after Ranger came home, we lost one of our older dogs who had gone in for surgery to remove a cancer-ridden spleen. The surgery proved too much for him and he did not survive the night. Although we knew it was a possibility, it still came as a blow.
The following evening during his 9:00 backyard potty break, Ranger was bitten by a copperhead snake that had been hidden between two rocks and the cover of darkness. I immediately woke my sleeping four-year-old (my husband is in Africa until November) and we headed to the clinic. Ranger screamed for pretty much the next 12 hours. He was bitten on the chin, and had severe swelling and pain. The next few days were spent recovering from the bite and getting spoiled, which, of course, is very un-working-dog-like!
Kammo living the good life (left), and a snakebit Ranger
Despite these few rough patches, I have managed to keep my head above water. I can rest assured that our old dog Kammo had a good, long life that included daily long farm walks and swimming in ponds up to the end. I’m also thanking my lucky stars that Ranger recovered from his bite without any physical or emotional trauma, and is progressing well through his early training.
I spend each day taking him to new places, meeting new people and challenging him bit by bit to help mold him into the dog we hope he will become. I am posting regular videos of his training on the Dogs for Conservation website and Facebook page, so feel free to watch and learn from our progress and our bumps in the road. And, please keep your fingers crossed that he will forever steer clear of snakes!
News: Guest Posts
The education of a conservation dog team
April 10 2012
Dogs assisting biologists and conservationists around the world in the never-ending effort to protect and save the planet we humans abuse and call home at the same time—almost sounds like a sci-fi movie doesn’t it?
If you love dogs, odds are you love or at least appreciate the natural world. It is no secret that protecting the environment is extremely important. We all impact the environment every day, whether by driving gas-powered vehicles, writing on paper that came from trees, leaving our lights on in our house—you get the idea. None of us are innocent bystanders, but we can all be proactive by lessening our impact and/or getting directly involved in protecting the environment.
I chose both from an early age. Like many little girls, I loved animals and my passion never wavered. I have made a career out of it—working as a wildlife biologist, a wildlife rehabilitator and a zoo manager. I have worked and lived in the United States and South Africa, where I met my future husband, a fellow conservationist, Mike.
My love of wildlife has always had one strong competitor… a love for dogs. My current household consists of four dogs. Two sweet, geriatric Pointers that Mike had when we met, and my two “boys,” former Bark cover dog, Golden Retriever Riley and his hilarious sidekick Tank the Frenchie. Dog training has always been a fun hobby. However, in recent years as my career in wildlife was sidelined so I could be a fulltime mom to now four-year-old daughter Camryn, I got involved with dog training more seriously and started attending conferences and training seminars.
It was at one of these seminars in early 2011 that I heard the wonderful Ken Ramirez speak about the use of dogs in wildlife conservation efforts. He spoke of dogs finding sea turtle nests, detecting orca poop in the ocean, locating invasive plants and illegal caches of ivory, and on and on.
Rebecca Ross with tiger cub, zebra and giraffe in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa
What was this? Did I hear him right? My two passions joined together? I did hear him right, and during 2011, as we were living and traveling throughout southern Africa, I took the opportunity to learn more and interview fellow wildlife conservationists to see if dogs really were a resource they could use.
The answer was a resounding yes. Fast-forward a year and a half later: Dogs for Conservation is now following in the footsteps of only a few pioneering people and organizations that specifically train dogs for conservation work.
In only a few short days, I am flying to Florida to pick up a Golden Retriever puppy, donated to us by a kindhearted and supportive person. He comes from an impressive line of hunting, search and rescue, disaster and cadaver dogs.
Over the coming months, I will blog about the special training for our first Conservation Dog and special projects. I will also write about my travels to increase my own knowledge and training, including a trip to Namibia to visit with the scat-detection dogs and livestock guardian dogs at the Cheetah Conservation Fund as well as several seminars for human remains detection dogs and disaster dogs.
Come along for the ride, I can’t wait to introduce you to the first paid employee of Dogs for Conservation. (Paid in tennis balls and treats of course!)
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