work of dogs
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Disability not a deal breaker
I just finished watching Oscar Pistorius of South Africa qualify for the semifinals in the Olympics 400m race. Nicknamed the Blade Runner because of the shape of the prosthetic legs he wears for racing, Pistorius is the first double amputee to compete in the Olympic Games. He reminds us all that disabilities need not inhibit success and that the joy of having a purpose is not limited to the able-bodied.
Today must be my own personal “disabilities awareness day” because when I took a break from watching the Olympics, I read a story about Pirate the Papillon, a one-eyed dog who is in training to become a service dog. Though one of his eyes failed to open, his guardian recognized that he was special, and looked into the possibility of Pirate becoming a service dog. Pirate is in the initial phases of the process now, learning to be comfortable in all kinds of situations with a wide variety of people and being trained to do basic skills. Within the year, he will receive specific training, perhaps as a hearing dog or as an alert dog for someone with epilepsy or diabetes.
Pirate is so much more than a one-eyed dog. He is a dog with a lovely temperament who is going to make the life of his lucky human companion so much better and so much easier. I’ll bet that’s true of a great many dogs with a disability. Do you have one whose story you’d like to share?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
More veterans are turning to canines to cope with PTSD
More and more returning veterans are turning to dogs to help cope with post traumatic stress disorder. Last week, the Senate passed a bill (HR 1627) that would require the Veterans Affairs Department is open their housing facilities to veterans with service dogs. The current version restricts assess to canines trained by certain accredited organizations. While these animals are becoming more accepted, there are still many hurdles to face in getting full recognition.
There are three types of dogs that provide care to people with mental health illnesses. The first are psychiatric service dogs, canines that are trained to assist through specific tasks, such as creating physical space during an anxiety attack or calming handlers having a bad nightmare. The second are emotional support dogs that more generally comfort people with disabilities. And the third are therapy dogs that visit hospitals and nursing homes. The Americans with Disabilities Act does not protect the last category and these animals can’t be taken into restaurants or stores that don’t normally allow pets.
However, the laws protecting service animals can be abused. Some people have psychiatrists sign letters for non-legitimate reasons or use fake certification web sites in order to being their pets along with them. Unfortunately this makes it harder for people with real service dogs to be taken seriously. This is partly why HR 1627 has a certification requirement.
Phony working canines aren’t the only complications. While airlines and other transportation services have to accommodate service animals, this can make it difficult for people with pet allergies to travel.
Another factor, which I had never thought about, is concern for the dogs’ well being. Some believe that service dogs could be emotionally harmed when paired with a depressed or anxious person. Any pet lover knows that animals pick up on our feelings, so I can see how this can be an issue. I would love to see research done in this area.
But for those who rely on psychiatric service dogs, these animals are indispensible, and they could not imagine a world without their trusted furry partners.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Ex-shelter dogs are trained to become conversation canines
Families often misjudge how much exercise dogs need, which is how many pets end up at the animal shelter. Insatiable play drive is bad for the average home but great for working canines. The Center for Biology Conservation adopts many of these dogs and trains them to sniff out wildlife droppings. Yes you read that right!
Scientists can learn a lot from scat, including sex, species, and even stress level. They can put together a complete health profile without even ever meeting an animal in person.
The Center's current project is bringing two conservation canines to the Jemez Mountains in New Mexico to track salamanders found nowhere else in the world. These amphibians are threatened due to the changing climate. The information will be used to map salamanders and create a plan to help save the critters and conserve the forests they live in.
The two dogs scheduled for the job are a Labrador named Sampson and an Australian Cattle Dog named Alli. Both are rescue pups and have since gone through rigorous training (all through positive reinforcement!). Sampson and Alli are trained on a variety of animal droppings, including the Pacific Pocket Mouse whose scat is as small as a sesame seed! Other conservation canines can even sniff out killer whale waste.
The Center's Conservation Canines program launched in 1997 and now sends scat sniffing dogs all over the world. Their skills are unmatched as they can collect huge amounts of samples over a large area in a short period of time.
I knew that droppings can provide a wealth of information, but the work that can be done with that data is far bigger that I'd realized. In one notable project, the Center used data from African elephant scat to create a map that is being used to battle the illegal ivory trade. Now when ivory pieces are discovered, the laboratory can identify the exact area it came from, which increases the chances of finding the culprits.
All that thanks to the amazing canine nose!
News: Guest Posts
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:
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Operation Stress Control
Forty-eight to 72 hours after a critical event occurs in a war zone — a soldier is killed in an explosion, for example — the U.S. Army’s Combat Operational Stress Control (COSC) unit offers what it calls traumatic event management to help the affected unit cope with the loss. “We debrief and talk about what they experienced,” says Capt. Cecilia Najera, an occupational therapist. “We reinforce [the fact] that the symptoms and feelings they are having are normal reactions to something that is abnormal.”
During one such gathering, in Tikrit, Iraq, the soldiers sat in a circle around Boe, a black Labrador and one of the first army dogs to be deployed specifically to provide troops with emotional support. Some of the men and women wanted to talk about the incident. Others, trying to get a handle on their feelings, just wanted to listen. A few found it easier to talk when they were petting the dog.
“It was somber,” Najera remembers. But then, in the middle of the circle, Boe broke the gloomy atmosphere with an abrupt movement. “She tried to catch a fly,” Najera says, “and everyone laughed. She definitely offered a bit of a distraction and helped lighten the mood.”
Sgt. 1st Class Boe was arguably one of the hardest-working and most popular soldiers at the base during her deployment. In a place where both the emotional and the physical climates are harsh, Boe became de facto family for many of the soldiers. She got them talking when they were inclined to shut down, and frolicking when they needed to relax. She allowed them to express themselves emotionally and demonstrate affection (which she reciprocated) in an environment where warmth and tenderness were in exceedingly short supply.
The program was launched in 2007, and Boe and another black Lab, Budge, became the army’s first COSC dogs, helping service members deal with combat anxieties, homefront issues and sleep disorders. They were donated to the army by America’s VetDogs, a sister organization of the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. The foundation has a history of working with the military, back to post–World War II days, when they provided guide dogs for vision-impaired veterans.
There is nothing new about dogs working with soldiers — they are well established and valuable in areas of detection and security. But it wasn’t until folks from the army’s COSC unit approached VetDogs about sending therapy dogs to Iraq that the nonprofit organization began training its canines for a very different purpose.
“These dogs have to have impeccable behavior,” says Wells Jones, CEO of VetDogs and the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. “We’re giving them that behavior, plus preparation for all kinds of people and circumstances.” He acknowledges that, seeking a similar emotional connection, military units have been known to adopt local dogs. But those dogs, few of whom have been inoculated, can bring disease onto a base. Most importantly, the army has a rule against it. General Order 1-A says that soldiers are forbidden to adopt, care for or even feed any domestic or wild animals in the war zone.
Trainers choose COSC dogs, whose jobs fall under the umbrella of animalassisted therapy, based on temperament. It’s critical that they do not react negatively to loud noises, and that they follow their handler’s commands despite distractions ranging from mortar rounds to a soldier bearing a tempting treat. Training includes exposure to groundrumbling noises (rifle ranges) and exotic transportation (helicopters).
With security in mind, VetDogs chose Boe and Budge in part for their color — black. “We were thinking that they’d be less visible at night,” Jones says. “But since then, our preference has changed and we’d prefer them on the lighter side because of the strong sunlight and the fur’s ability to reflect.”
Before a dog is sent overseas, army handlers spend time training at the VetDogs campus on Long Island, N.Y., and at army bases. Although one person becomes the dog’s primary handler, three others are also trained to ensure that 11th-hour staffing changes won’t affect the dog’s care. On top of that, 40 to 50 people in each unit receive one day of basic instruction in dog care — for instance, do not feed the dog MREs (the army’s infamous Meals Ready-to- Eat, which may, in some cases, be less palatable than kibble). When the dog is fully trained, he or she travels on official army orders to the war zone.
Opening Doors to Mental Health
“There’s still a mental-health stigma,” Najera says. “When you say, ‘Hi, I’m from Stress Control,’ people tend to run the other way. But I found that having a dog opened up doors. Instead of having to [make the] approach, people approached me.” She says it also gave soldiers something neutral to talk about, especially if they had pets at home. Before they knew it, they would be talking about personal aspects of their lives and even — on occasion — their feelings.
Najera found that she and Boe were always working. Not only were they available to men and women dealing with combat trauma or news of tragedy back home, but soldiers would also approach the pair at the dining facility or while they were running on the track (part of the old Iraqi Air Force base where they were staying). Najera created a program for a couple of overweight soldiers to run with Boe, and the dog even participated in a 5K on the base. The four-legged competitor still managed to boost morale, even after beating a few human racers. On Boe’s fourth birthday, the Army Dixie band played, and the dining facility staff made a cake and a piñata. “It was a party for her, but it was really for our community,” Najera says. “It just showed how much people really enjoyed having a dog.”
Boe wasn’t immune to the high-stress environment. After all, she was charged with comforting many of the 16,000 people living on a base that was active 24 hours a day. “I think the dogs experience compassion fatigue too,” Najera says. “When soldiers tell us what they’re going through, it becomes stressful for us, because we’re absorbing the stresses. I think it was the same for the dogs.” Eventually, a forced nap was scheduled into Boe’s day.
In Mosul, at Forward Operating Base Marez, Budge lived at a smaller facility but still had his work cut out for him: consoling troops at a trailer-based clinic and going for walkabouts to visit units. The base was mortared multiple time a day, and though Budge raised his ears at the sound, he didn’t panic. He even had a chance to save a life, donating blood to a military police dog who was injured along with his handler in a shooting.
Like Boe, Budge was a superstar and champion icebreaker, garnering invitations (to unit social gatherings, for instance) that a mental-health provider might never get otherwise. “We couldn’t go anywhere without someone calling his name,” recalls his handler, Staff Sgt. Syreeta Reid, an occupational therapy assistant. “They didn’t remember my name, but they always knew I was the one with Budge.” Sometimes Reid set up play dates between Budge and the soldiers: Frisbee or fetch on a field where an Iraqi soccer team once played.
In both countries, the weather is unforgiving and the physical conditions are challenging, and the dogs — just like other soldiers — are deployed with proper gear. They have booties to protect their paws from the hot ground and Doggles to protect their eyes from blowing sand. They have cooling jackets for daytime and, in Afghanistan, warm vests for night. Reid says she inspected Budge’s paws daily to make sure they weren’t cracked, and used cream to keep them hydrated. The mercury rose to 135 degrees some days, and those were indoor days for Budge.
On days with multiple soldier visits, Budge would inevitably receive too many treats. Reid says one of the hardest things was dispelling the myth that food equals love. The fact was, Budge was getting a little, well, pudgy. Reid pled with his fans to limit the treats, but eventually resorted to serving him smaller meals to control his weight.
Studies are currently underway at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, next to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, to help understand exactly how the dogs are helping soldiers. Anecdotal evidence shows that the presence of an animal helps soldiers sleep and lowers their anxiety.
But just like any other area of military medicine, it’s critical to have research to show the effectiveness of the therapy dog program, which — with training, transportation, gear and care — isn’t cheap. In the meantime, the deployments continue, even though the dogs haven’t yet been formally added to the COSC unit’s personnel roster.
Today, three dogs are serving in Afghanistan (Apollo, Timmy and Zeke). Two dogs (Butch and Zack) returned from Iraq in December and are temporarily back at VetDogs before they are redeployed to Afghanistan. After retraining, Boe and Budge were sent to Ft. Gordon’s Eisenhower Army Medical Center in Georgia. Budge died in 2010 from lymphoma, and Boe is now working at Georgia’s Ft. Benning, lending a paw to the healing of wounded soldiers. It’s hard to know if Boe is happy to be back in her home country because she takes such pleasure in working and helping people, regardless of who owns the turf. Being deployed might not be such a bad life for a dog. “These dogs are doing something they love to do,” Jones says. “They love to be with people. So it’s not the same circumstance as soldiers, who are away from their families. The dogs are with their family.”
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
One courageous therapy dog inspires many.
Dutchess is a golden Retriever with a smi le guaranteed to warm your heart — an important gift in her line of work. As a therapy dog with the Good Dog Foundation, she is required to stay calm and nurturing in challenging situations. And when a hereditary illness recently claimed her eyesight, her generosity of spirit and signature smile remained firmly intact.
Mark Condon brought Dutchess into his home as a puppy nine years ago, and they have been a loving team ever since. In between his duties as professor of biology at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., they volunteer at the Anderson Center for Autism in nearby Staatsburg.
Like any rambunctious pooch, Dutchess loves chasing tennis balls. She never missed one tossed to her, Condon recalls. Then, in 2010, something started to change — she began to miss them. She also started bumping into objects and sometimes appeared to be disoriented. Visits to the vet and ophthalmologist revealed that she had pigmentary uveitis, a genetic disease that generally leads to glaucoma and blindness.
Eye medications slowed the progression, but it was obvious to Condon that after six months of trying everything, her vision was all but gone. Even worse, the pressure on her eyes was causing her pain. After receiving the grim news that surgical removal of both eyes was necessary, he and Dutchess started preparing for the inevitable. “I had some time to get her oriented and teach her new commands such as ‘Curb up, curb down’ and ‘Look out’ to alert her to things she might collide with off-leash.”
Fortunately, Dutchess sailed through the operation and was able to go home one day later “with her tail wagging as if nothing had happened,” says Condon. Free of pain, her recovery was nothing short of remarkable, but the question remained: could she go back to the therapy work she loved?
“My biggest fear was that the outgoing, gregarious dog I knew would be lost,” says Condon. “She loves her work so much, and I knew she would really miss it, but I had to make sure she had the confidence to return. She would be completely blind and still interacting in a place where there might be loud noises. The only way was to try.”
Mary Anne Enea is a speech language pathologist at Anderson and had worked with Dutchess and Mark before the surgery. “When Mark first told me she was going to lose her eyes, it broke my heart,” says Enea. “Then when he said she was ready to come back to work after only three weeks, I couldn’t believe it. [Though] I thought he might have wanted her back this quick for her sake, I knew he would never put her in harm’s way.” Dutchess surprised everyone by easing right back into her job as if nothing had happened.
Part of a special program initiated by Anderson several years ago, therapy dogs work with patients to break through the wall of autism and help strengthen their communication and social skills. If a patient wants to throw a tennis ball for Dutchess to chase, brush her or give her food or water, they must step outside themselves to communicate that request to Enea or Condon.
Dutchess’ inability to see now adds another layer to the interaction. Before, a tennis ball was easy for her to spot and chase. Now, the ball must first be held close for her to smell it, and then thrown. Retrieving the ball is a triumph shared, says Enea. “One of my patients is much more enthusiastic now when she gets the ball. Before, he wasn’t cheering for anyone. Now, he is clapping and cheering for her … for someone else.” Condon admits he swelled with pride the first few times he took Dutchess back to Anderson. “It was amazing that she had the confidence to trust people she couldn’t see to pet her and interact with her.”
Rachel McPherson, founder and executive director of the Good Dog Foundation, calls Dutchess and Condon an inspiring therapy-dog team. “Clients and patients take comfort in hearing how Dutchess rebounded from a grim prognosis, and see her as an example of what love and determination can do.” Dutchess’s remaining senses have become heightened, and the fact that she has overcome her disability with grace is not lost on those she interacts with, says Condon. “Whether you are a dog or person, consider not just what’s inside you but what is around you. It is how you fit into the rest of the world that is important. People say to me, ‘I feel so bad for her’ and I say, please don’t. She is as happy as she has ever been in her life. Someone’s petting her now, or wants to play with her right now or talk to her. If she was not able to extend her consciousness outside of herself, she would not get that happy. She derives it from how she reacts with others.”
The deep bonds of love and trust between Dutchess and Condon have fueled the engine of recovery and allowed her to continue to make a difference in people’s lives. “I don’t know if I have ever seen a bond like they have,” says Enea. “Mark lives for Dutchess. He is so proud of how much she loves her work, and she knows she is safe with him. She is an inspiration.”
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
On a calm winter morning in Three Forks State Park in Montana, I stand next to Alice Whitelaw and her truck. Three dogs crated in the back bark and yodel. Ten-year-old Camas, the most experienced tracker, moans the loudest.Whitelaw pops the latch, and out hops Camas, a fine-boned, dark German Shepherd. Though I stand close to her handler, she doesn’t even quiver a nostril in my direction. Camas focuses her bright brown eyes on Whitelaw, vibrating with excitement as Whitelaw straps her into her working vest. Camas is first up to give me a demonstration of what a conservation dog can do.
Before I arrived,Whitelaw planted bear scat (poop) in the brushy field in front of us. Camas is going to find three samples, using her nose. Camas is off-lead, and she and Whitelaw stand at the edge of the field and lock eyes for a second. She gathers herself, as though balancing at a starting gate.Whitelaw pulls out a ropeball toy and shows it to Camas.“Ready?” she asks. “Find it,” she says in a calm voice. Camas begins to run, nose to the ground.
Camas is one of a handful of dogs in the United States who works for science through Working Dogs for Conservation. The dogs scan wild terrain to find wildlife scat or hair, plants and even animals. The organization was founded by four biologists—Whitelaw, Aimee Hurt, Megan Parker and Deborah Smith—to provide scientists with a noninvasive, inexpensive but accurate way to count or study wildlife and plants.
African Wildlife Foundation’s Canines for Conservation program trains and deploys detection dogs and their handlers to key airports and seaports throughout the continent to head off traffickers before they can export illegal products. This clip from the PBS documentary Shelter Me highlights this important work.
Whitelaw worked as a wolf biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “I loved it. It’s great work, but it’s no secret that if you handle wild animals, at some point somebody’s gonna get hurt, and I’m talking about the animals.”“Capture and handling”is still considered one of the best ways to study and observe wildlife. Biologists set traps in the woods or dart wildlife from helicopters. Sometimes they drug and fit the animals with radio collars, then use receivers to locate the animals later and observe or count them.
Yet, capture and handling can be costly and difficult. Animals may detect traps and bypass them or, like wolves, dig them up and poop on them (gotcha!). Some animals fight the trap, expending terrific energy or injuring themselves.Wildlife in traps may hyperventilate, overheat or, very rarely, die of “capture myopathy,” heart failure from stress. They can also fall prey to other animals.
About 15 years ago, there was a shift in the wildlife field.Researchers figured out ways to collect and decode DNA from scat, hair or skin samples. “What if we could get information from scat without ever seeing the animal? We started thinking about using dogs. It seemed natural: loved dogs, loved working with them, loved being in the field with them,wondered if we could make this work,” says Whitelaw.
Dogs have a leg up on humans as searchers and trackers. And it’s a rare dog who doesn’t love to sniff out, evaluate, roll in or coolly sprinkle over poop. Most dogs seem to consider the examination of scat as one of the major jobs of the day. There’s a difference, however, between a pet dog’s daily rounds and the focused work of a detection dog, who communicates with her handler about every single scat of the “target” species.
What motivates conservation dogs is not poop, but play.While Camas searches for scat the way any dog does, she does not relate to scat the way other dogs do. Camas equates material from the species she’s been trained to find with playing tug-of-war with Whitelaw. Whitelaw explains, “These dogs are not smelling every poop like most dogs do. They are out there working for the target scent that they’ve been trained to associate with their reward [their ball]. That’s all they’re doing. They’re not out there acting like dogs.” Most of them are toyobsessed— they’re the dogs you’ll see in shelters, bouncing off the walls. In fact, that’s how many conservation dogs have been discovered. The partners visit shelters, looking for the dog who won’t put down her toy for anything. Others are rescue dogs, and some come from breeders who specialize in detection dogs.
This morning, conservation veteran Camas is engrossed in her job, rushing through the dried grass with her nose above the ground, zigzagging on an imaginary line in front of Whitelaw. Once Camas has found her target, she’s trained to look at the scat, thrust her nose toward it without touching it, sit next to it and then make eye contact with Whitelaw. This series of movements is called an “alert.”
Camas is a generalist; she can identify 13 species, including kit fox,wolf, cougar, grizzly bear, black bear, desert tortoise, and several invasive and rare plants. This lowland state park is a good place for a demonstration of finding grizzly scat because the bears don’t live in this habitat. The scat samples Whitelaw has planted should pop out at Camas.
Generalist dogs like Camas can’t turn off their training. She’ll alert on any and all of the species she knows, wherever she finds them. In the Montana mountains, Camas is asked to search for grizzly, black bear, cougar and wolf all at once.
Working Dogs for Conservation’s dog/ handler teams have helped study animals all over the globe, including Amur tigers, African wild dogs, and snails in Hawaii. Closer to home, Camas and Whitelaw work in Montana’s Centennial Mountains on a predator-connectivity study. Jon Beckmann, the lead researcher, studies the ways in which many grizzlies, black bears, wolves and cougars live in and use the mountains as a link to other habitats. Beckmann’s data, gathered in part by the dogs, have contributed to several land management decisions that have protected the predators and their migration corridors.
“The dogs have allowed us to study a whole suite of carnivores simultaneously in a really rugged landscape, where it’s difficult to trap animals.”Beckmann adds that he’s learned not to doubt the dogs. “In five years, the dogs have had 98.6 percent accuracy over 1,000 data points,” says Beckmann.
Camas pauses, pokes her nose toward something on the ground and looks at Whitelaw.“Show me,” says Whitelaw. The dog steps to the patty, pokes her nose toward it, sits, then stares at Whitelaw. Whitelaw whips the ball end of the pulltoy into Camas’s mouth and her voice travels high up into a sunny range.“What a good girl! What a dog!”
Finding the Right Dogs
Drive gets the dogs through repetitive, sometimes grueling training and searches. The dogs must be crazy for their rewards, ignoring distractions. “Play has to be a big enough deal,” says Aimee Hurt, “so that searching wouldn’t be enough. If a dog liked searching more than the toy, that’s a problem, because it cuts down on the dog’s need to communicate with you.”
Nerve strength is crucial because the dogs work in the wild. It’s one thing to ask a dog to find a bomb in a human environment like a building or airport; it’s another to teach a dog whose focus is on reading poop to ignore the messages that poop is sending. A conservation dog overrides what he knows about the animal whose scat he’s sniffing.Wolves, for instance, treat other canids as competition and may try to kill them. Not surprisingly, some dogs react to wolf scat.
“They pee on it, get their hackles up and walk around it in a creeped-out way, or won’t go into it at all.” If a dog is too nervous around wild scat, he won’t make the cut. (Whitelaw and her partners have been known to fall in love with some dropouts and keep them as pets.)
Even an accomplished tracker like Whitelaw’s male dog,Tsavo, occasionally balks when scat wafts a territorial warning.“ He’ll identify all kinds of wolf scat, but there are a couple of instances where we’ve come across a great big pile of what I’m assuming is alpha male wolf scat and he’ll alert from a distance.” Whitelaw adds,“A handler has to know how to read that individual dog in order to work him at his peak. Every dog is different.”
At first, the dogs play hide-and-seek and games with their handlers.Handlers downplay manners. “You want as wild an animal as you can get.We want the dog to be very independent—listening, but not in the obedience sense.”At about one year old, the dog is ready for search training.Whitelaw sets up a row of cinder blocks with holes in them. Into one she inserts a glass jar with something stinky, like hair gel. “When the dog gets to the hot block, the ball appears out of nowhere.” (She drops it from under her arm.) Each time the dog stops and notices the scent, the handler throws a toy or plays tug-of-war.
Once a dog makes the link routinely, he’s taught a formal alert. There are many steps and pitfalls on the way to field readiness, which generally takes four months for conservation dogs, a longer training period than for most detection dogs.And in the end, training alone does not make a conservation detection dog. The dogs have to have a “willingness to cooperate,” says Whitelaw. “No amount of training’s going to make a dog do something like this.”
By noon, Hurt, Wicket and I were pressed against the wall as Camas ran her final trial. She punched her nose into one block and neatly sat, eyes on Whitelaw. She’d located the target scat and this time, after tugging and hallooing, Whitelaw let Camas carry her rope-ball.
She stepped over to us, showing off her toy. Then, after greeting Hurt, for the first time since I’d met her, Camas looked up at me, glance expansive, lips drawn back as though smiling. She reminded me of a prime athlete, chatting up the spectators after winning. Look, my toy. She waggled her head just a bit. I got it because I did well. Whitelaw had instructed me not to engage with Camas or her toys, even if she offered them.Yet, the dog waited for acknowledgement. I touched her head lightly, “Yes, you did well. You did!” She grinned and turned abruptly, seeking out Whitelaw’s eyes, ready for whatever her partner might want from her.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
With a leash and a prayer, Kat Albrecht pursues an admirable goal: improve the odds when a best friend goes missing.
It’s a cloudy, late-winter morning in Clovis, just outside Fresno, Calif. The night before had been stormy, and later, a tornado will touch down nearby. You wouldn’t want your dog or cat roaming in weather like this. But somewhere out there, hungry and wet, might be Tinkerbell and Pumpkin. The skinny, tiger-striped, two-year-old mother cat and her look-a-like five-month-old kitten have been missing for two weeks.
Owner Becky Brady had let the cats out for a little break. “It was late afternoon and they were sniffing bushes while my daughters played,” Brady says. “Then, suddenly, they were gone.” Like many indoor-only cats, they had neither collars nor microchips. To make matters worse, Brady and her three daughters will be moving to Denver in five days.
We learned about the cats from a posting on craigslist.com. Eager to demonstrate how Missing Animal Response (MAR) technicians do their job, Kat Albrecht called Brady to offer her services. MAR uses the same investigative techniques, technologies and strategies that police detectives and search-and-rescue technicians employ to find missing persons. “Some people think it’s a scam,” Albrecht says. “They think we’re nuts.” But Brady is game, or desperate, or both.
So here we are in a modest neighborhood of single-family homes and condos at 8:30 in the morning. Albrecht, in jeans, work boots and a Day-Glo orange “Lost Pet Search” coat, looks every inch the former police Bloodhound handler, crime scene investigator, search-and-rescue manager, and police officer that she is. Parked nearby is her dark green truck with reflective SEARCH and RESCUE bumper stickers and a PETHNTR license plate in a frame that reads: “Get lost. Make my Bloodhound’s day.” In the past eight years, Albrecht has conducted about 150 full-scale searches and helped reunite approximately 1,800 owners with their pets through consultations.
Before we search a square inch, Albrecht asks Brady a few questions about the missing cats. Last sighting? Habits? Experience outdoors? Temperament? Neighbors with a grudge? She’s creating a “feline personality profile” that will help her determine probabilities for the missing cats across a spectrum that ranges from theft, rescue and unintentional disposal to injury, illness, death, deliberate displacement and more.
Barring intervention, “there are predictable patterns for how a dog or cat will act when he gets free,” Albrecht explains. Those patterns dictate search strategies. Of course, it’s easier with cats. With dogs, several x-factors, including a much greater likelihood of human involvement, make predictions more difficult (see below).
Temperament is key. According to Brady, Tinkerbell is outgoing with humans and dogs. If she’d been “skittish and xenophobic,” Albrecht would have recommended humane traps with food, the best way to capture a frightened, hungry cat seeking food under the cover of darkness. She’s recovered many this way. But since Tinkerbell has a “curious clown” temperament, a daylight search of the immediate area using a cat-detection dog is the order of the day.
This is no undercover operation. Seasoned volunteers Beverlee Bargamian and Jill Buchanan, also decked out in neon, join Brady and Albrecht. A retired US Marshal, Bargamian wields an amplified listening device (ALD), the little dish and headphones favored by hunters and PIs, and a turbo flashlight.
Buchanan has her hands full with Susie, a four-year-old Jack Russell Terrier tricked out with her own “search dog” shabrack, a neon-orange vest. Susie is a cat-detection dog. She searches for kitties indiscriminately and in the process, we hope she flushes out the two we are looking for. She’s angling to get started, poised on her back legs and straining at her leash.
“I’m not the first person to use a dog to find lost pets,” Albrecht says. But she probably is the first to codify the training and to try to create a national resource. When she originally suggested using one dog to find another dog (an invention born of necessity when her police Bloodhound A.J. went missing in 1996), it was a heresy to her colleagues in the K-9 unit and her search-and-rescue peers. They considered the idea a misuse of a good dog and a waste of training. “I lost a lot of friends,” she says.
Currently, Albrecht has two scent-detection dogs at home: Chase, an 11-year-old Bloodhound once used in police work to track criminals, and Kody, a three-year-old Whippet-mix. Both can identify individual dogs, cats, snakes, turtles, ferrets, iguanas and geckos (and probably much more) by scent.
Albrecht and Brady start knocking on doors, asking for permission to check backyards. To my surprise, no one says no, although one homeowner looks at the search crew and says under her breath, “She must really love her cat.”
We quickly circle a well-kept yard that offers few hiding spots for a cat. Buchanan directs Susie to “check here” and “check here” along the fence and edge of the house. The dog sniffs eagerly but determines almost immediately that this yard is a bust. “We rely on their body language to tell us what they smell,” says Albrecht, who never doubts a well-trained dog’s nose. “They live in a world that’s different from ours.”
The next yard is a potential bonanza. There’s scrap wood, an upside-down stroller and lots of other domestic junk on the patio. As we peer under bushes and old mattresses, Albrecht is answering Brady’s questions. She sounds like counselor, explaining why the cats might not respond to calls of “Tinky.”
“A cat’s only protection from predators is to hide and be quiet,” she explains.
Why haven’t they returned home?
Because Tinkerbell and Pumpkin are indoor cats, they haven’t established an outdoor territory. Albrecht explains that the world beyond the threshold was new and unknown. There’s no reason to think that once they wandered off, they’d even be able to recognize home.
“My friend thinks they might be stolen,” Brady offers. “They are really beautiful.”
“Well, maybe,” Albrecht says, not terribly convincingly. “But this was the first time you ever let them out.”
She’s already explained to me that pet-theft is a common explanation. People often want to believe their animal has been stolen because it means closure. “They want to stop grieving,” she says. It happens, but it is rarer than you’d think.
At the next house, a woman gives a dead-on, uncoached description that matches Brady’s: a skinny, white-and-tan, gregarious cat, seen several times in the past two weeks. Pay dirt. Albrecht said the two cats would be nearby. Meanwhile, Susie pulls Buchanan behind a shed, and she sees tiny, muddy paw-prints on the fence. A frisson of excitement shoots through the group.
We follow the direction of the sighting. An elderly woman lets all of us, Susie included, tromp through her house to the backyard to check a garden crowded with tropical plants, bushes, a wishing well and outdoor bric-a-brac. The team is gleeful at the sight of so many potential hiding places. (After a few hours of this type of work, you never look at a yard the same way again.) Susie lets out a series of shrill barks and bolts for a corner. A fat gray cat leaps over the fence.
“Gooooood girl,” Buchanan and Albrecht praise her. The former shelter dog vibrates with excitement. It’s not the right cat, but she’s not expected to discriminate. She’s nailed her quarry.
With a cat already here, Albrecht doesn’t expect to find Tinkerbell and Pumpkin sharing this territory, but we make a thorough check. The woman watches through her glass doors, and as we file back through her home, says she’ll pray for the cats.
Other neighbors have seen nothing but promise to look, and then tell us sad stories about how they lost a pet. On several posts nearby, flyers describing a lost dog are water-soaked and illegible. On this gloomy morning, lost pets seem like a universal condition. According to Albrecht, no one keeps track of the number of pets that go astray annually. “We know how many cars were stolen in a year. And how many guns. But we can’t say how many pets go missing,” she says, clearly disgusted.
As we head to a new block, a man shouts across the street, “Are you for real?”
We pass a yard with a broken television set and pile of clothing on the sidewalk. The garage door is cracked open and junk spews through it. “I’d like to get in there,” Bargamian says. But no one is home to give permission.
Many of the homes in this neighborhood have raised foundations ventilated by small, screened openings. If there’s a hole in the screen big enough for a cat, Bargamian pokes in with her ALD to listen for cat sounds. A neighbor dog barks, and she gives a little leap.
When training Missing Animal Response (MAR) technicians, Albrecht teaches aspiring pet detectives to investigate hiding places for signs of fur. Once, she used a DNA lab to match fur tufts found at a coyote kill site with fur taken from a cat’s bed at home. This is where Albrecht’s police background really comes in handy.
After some early positive signs, the trail is growing cold. We’ve been searching a three-block area for almost two hours. Even with bad knees and a back injury that permanently sidelined her from police work in 1998, Albrecht shows no sign of fatigue or frustration. She’s tracked pets through bramble-covered ravines and in foul weather. (Many of these adventures are described in her memoir, The Lost Pet Chronicles: Adventures of a K-9 Cop Turned Pet Detective.)
When she finally calls off the search, she’s confident we’ve made a good start. The neighborhood is on alert. Frequently, the mere visibility of a search makes all the difference. A few years back, while trailing Bubba, a lost Jack Russell, she was approached by a bystander investigating the commotion, who proclaimed: “I’ve got that dog in my garage.” Case closed.
This morning was the first time any of Brady’s neighbors learned about the missing cats. The chances that she will get a phone call the next time Tinkerbell or Pumpkin surface are far greater now than they were yesterday.
We pile into the truck. Susie is wet but reluctant to stop, as though she knows that all the unsearched yards, alleys and garages out there harbor more cats—a giant smorgasbord.
“There is a lot of pressure on you and your dog to turn up a miracle,” Albrecht says on the way home. But she sees her job as improving the odds of a search from “a needle in a haystack to a coin in a sandbox.”
At the Clovis home Albrecht shares with her 80-year-old mother, two dogs and two cats, Susie is rewarded with playtime. Cheeto, an ample orange feline, allows the Jack Russell to jump her and hold a cheek-full of fur in her muzzle. Like a scene from a romantic comedy, they roll across the carpet. This is actually Cheeto’s job. As a “target cat,” she is used for training dogs to hunt down, but never harm, missing cats. She appears to love her work.
In a back bedroom is Albrecht’s office, home of the Missing Pet Project, the national nonprofit organization she founded in 2004 to research the behavioral patterns of lost pets, educate pet owners in how to properly search for a lost pet, and educate animal shelter staff and volunteers in the science of lost pet behavior. Also, it’s the base of operations for Pet Hunters International, a pet-detective academy established in 2004 to certify MAR technicians, investigators and search dogs. There’s yellow CRIME SCENE tape on the door, and a doormat hanging on the wall reads: “Come back with a warrant.”
“I want you to hear this,” Albrecht says, hitting the button of her answering machine. The plaintive voice of a Texas woman fills the room. Her cat has been missing for a month and she’s desperate for help from the woman who put pet detecting on the map.
“It kills me that I can’t help her,” Albrecht says, her voice breaking. “She shouldn’t have to call me all the way up here.” I’m surprised to see her cry.
After pouring her heart—and much of her bank account—into the effort to create a national organization, Albrecht and her Missing Pet Project have yet to establish stable financial support. And though she’s trained and certified many better-known pet detectives and at least one professional cat profiler, she and her profession still aren’t taken seriously.
On top of it, the realities of Albrecht’s life—financial troubles; job disappointments; health difficulties for her and her mother; and the deaths of Rachel and A. J., the dogs who launched her passion—often collide with her dream, sometimes running her off the rails. Her great idea isn’t an unqualified success yet.
But still she persists, and it looks like things might be turning around. The Today Show recently taped a segment featuring Albrecht’s work, and she’s in discussion with television executives about a reality show based on MAR cases. That sort of exposure could generate the momentum she needs to take her detection dogs from the fringe into the mainstream. Clearly, we are in the middle of this story. It’s too early to say how things will end.
Postscript: The fate of Becky Brady’s cats remains a mystery—after the search, Albrecht never heard from Brady again.
Kat Albrecht offers certification seminars for aspiring Missing Animal Response technicians; for more information, or for helpful advice if you’ve lost a pet, visit www.missingpetpartnership.org.
News: Guest Posts
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
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!
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